Israeli ultra-Orthodox parties may tip the balance

Demographic tendencies indicate there will be a continuing growth of the Israeli Arab and ultra-Orthodox populations, thus guaranteeing their sectorial parties more political power in next elections.

al-monitor An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man stands behind a booth as he votes in the parliamentary election at a polling station in Jerusalem, Jan. 22, 2013. Photo by REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun.

Topics covered

yair lapid, ultra-orthodox, mizrahi jews, knesset, joint arab list, israeli-arabs, israel, drafting of ultra-orthodox

Mar 23, 2015

The results of the elections to the 20th Knesset brought the structural differences in voting patterns between Mizrahi (Middle Eastern origin) and Ashkenazi (East European origin) Jews to the surface. However, in the heat of the ugly populist squabbling that this sensitive issue raised, another no less interesting phenomenon seems to have gotten lost, though it has far-reaching implications for the country’s future political structure. These elections were the first time that it was possible to quite accurately assess the political strength of two sectors, the Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox, which are not part of the Zionist mainstream.

The Joint List, which received 446,000 votes and 13 seats, is now the third-largest party in the Knesset. The two ultra-Orthodox parties — Shas, which represents ultra-Orthodox Mizrahim, and Yahadut HaTorah, which represents ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazim — also won a combined 13 seats. Shas won about 242,000 votes, which comes to seven seats, while Yahadut HaTorah won some 210,000 votes, which translates into six seats. This comes to a total of 452,000 votes, almost the same as the Arab parties won.

Infighting in Shas and internal bickering in Yahadut HaTorah apparently alienated some of their voters, leaving these two parties with their hard-core supporters only. In contrast, the fact that the various Arab parties were forced to coalesce into a single list makes it possible to assess their total electoral base for the very first time. It is a number from which they can only go up, not down.

Taken together, the Arab and ultra-Orthodox sectors are worth 26 seats, or in other words, almost one-quarter of all members of the 120-seat Knesset. This is a fascinating figure and an important one, too, since it points to where the sources of power in Israeli society are heading.

Until the 1990s, both these populations voted, on the whole, for more mainstream parties. The rise of Shas alongside the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox parties enabled ultra-Orthodox Mizrahim to build an independent power base of their own. In the Arab sector, the events of October 2000, in which 13 Arab civilians were killed by police gunfire, were a turning point, after which almost no Arabs would vote for parties on the Zionist left.

In the recent elections, the Joint List of predominantly Arab parties received as much as 97% support in some Arab communities (in Umm al-Fahm, for instance), whereas the number of people voting for the Labor Party or Meretz was negligible. This is the case even though the Labor Party dominated the Arab sector until 2000. In fact, in the 1999 elections, Arab voters even helped to bring Labor Party leader Ehud Barak to power. They threw massive support behind him in his quest to be prime minister. While it is true that voters in that election cast two ballots — one for their party of choice, and the other for prime minister — even if that method was restored, it is hard to imagine large-scale Arab support for a Jewish candidate.

Both these groups — Arab and ultra-Orthodox — top all the charts showing the country’s natural growth rate. These are very young populations, and new voters going to the polling stations for the very first time tend to vote for the sectorial parties that represent their communities. According to demographic trends projected by the Central Bureau of Statistics, two decades from now, in 2034, Israel will have a population of approximately 12 million. The share of Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews among this population is expected to grow, and this will be reflected in the electoral power that these two groups have in the Knesset.

What this means is that in the future, it will become increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to put together a government without one of these sectors. In the last elections, in 2013, the ultra-Orthodox were kept out of the government because Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid Party received a high number of votes, winning 19 seats. The ensuing coalition was more reminiscent of a national unity government, with two midsize-to-large parties forming a single government. Now it looks like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will put together a right-wing government, and that he will do so with the ultra-Orthodox parties.

Even in the scenario in which Zionist Camp leader Isaac Herzog would put together the next government, he would need the ultra-Orthodox bloc, since the Arabs apparently would not join a government headed by him. While the Arab parties will avoid sitting in a coalition headed by a Zionist party, the bargaining power of the ultra-Orthodox parties will only get stronger, regardless of whether the right wins the election or the left.

In exchange for joining the government this time, the ultra-Orthodox parties are demanding the repeal of all of “Lapid’s achievements” advancing the law to draft rabbinical college students and efforts to standardize government stipends to ultra-Orthodox institutions. It is most likely that the clauses in the law imposing criminal sanctions on ultra-Orthodox men who avoid serving in the military will be rescinded. It is obvious to just about everyone that this would be the first step in depleting the law of any real content.

In these elections, the ultra-Orthodox based their status on their position as the balance of power in Israeli politics, even if, in many ways, they are not part of the mainstream Israeli population. They do not identify with the country’s national symbols, and many of them neither serve in the army nor participate in the workforce.

Without downplaying the rift between Mizrahi and Ashkenazi Jews, people on both sides of the divide bear a shared social and national burden, which makes them part of the Zionist majority. According to all projections, that Zionist majority is losing its dominance over Israeli society and politics.

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