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AnalysisA political camp's painful choice between tactics & ideology

Israel’s center-left collapsed over the past 20 months. Where did it go?

In April 2019, Zionist parties that did not self-identify as ‘right’ won a combined 49 Knesset seats. They now poll at 26. Where did 47% of the center-left disappear to?

Haviv Rettig Gur

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz visits Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda market on March 28, 2019. (Sharia Diamnet)
Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz visits Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda market on March 28, 2019. (Sharia Diamnet)

There’s an old joke one sometimes hears from right-wing MKs in the Knesset building in Jerusalem whenever the sound of an ambulance siren wafts in through a window.

“That’s either a left-wing voter dying or a right-wing voter being born,” goes the line.

The quip, like all jokes, is based in truth. There’s a demographic reality that the Israeli left has yet to seriously grapple with, though it’s been known for decades. Israeli politics are tribal, with party allegiances usually dividing according to deep-seated cultural and religious differences, and the more left-leaning of those demographics are shrinking and growing older.

There is a “secular, modern, ‘Tel Aviv’ tribe,” notes Shmuel Rosner, an analyst and editor of themadad.com, a site that tracks political polls and offers analysis on the byzantine complexities of Israeli coalition math.

But that left-leaning tribe is hampered by its demographic weakness. “It always plays with a bad hand, because its pool of potential votes is small,” says Rosner. How small? “If you look at the population, there are about 40% who are ‘center’ and left,” Rosner says.

Israelis sit in Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv during a nationwide virus lockdown, on December 29, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Any bid by the center-left to win political power starts with that basic disadvantage: Its core demographics are a minority – at best a plurality – in Israeli society.

The left falls apart

The Times of Israel turned to Rosner this week not for that long view, but to answer a far more immediate and perplexing question.

The Madad, or “index” in Hebrew, has as its scientific adviser Rosner’s longtime collaborator Prof. Camil Fuchs, a statistician and former head of Tel Aviv University’s School of Mathematical Sciences who is also one of Israel’s most prolific and well-known political pollsters.

Rosner and Fuchs are experts on Israel’s cultural and religious divides, its “tribes.” The two wrote a book in 2018 (published in an English translation in 2019) titled “#IsraeliJudaism,” which maps out with surveys and statistical tools the deep shifts taking place in Israeli Jewish religious – and by extension political – identities.

The Madad, a new collaboration, gathers Israeli political polls and uses the data to graph the rise and fall of potential political coalitions and uncover trends that are not easily visible in the daily news stream.

Shmuel Rosner (Courtesy)

The site, whose “coalition monitor” tool is available in English, allows one to examine a phenomenon more perplexing than the slow decline of left-leaning demographics: The evaporation in 20 short months of nearly half the center-left electorate.

(The terms “left” and “center-left” are used here as Israelis generally use them, interchangeably to describe Zionist political factions and constituencies that do not describe themselves as “right.”)

Consider the scale of the collapse.

In the April 2019 election, the center-left writ large (Blue and White, Labor, Meretz and four-seat Kulanu, whose voters mostly described themselves as center-left even if party leader Moshe Kahlon hailed from Likud) won 49 Knesset seats, or 41% of the Knesset.

By the September election that year, Blue and White plus the newly reorganized left of Labor-Gesher and Democratic Union (Kulanu had merged with Likud and disappeared) drew 44 seats.

Democratic Union alliance members Nitzan Horowitz (2nd right), Ehud Barak (center), Stav Shafir (3rd right) and Tamar Zandberg (2nd left) on an election campaign tour at Sarona Market in Tel Aviv, September 16, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

By the March 2020 race, the same center-left, now made up of Blue and White and the consolidated Labor-Gesher-Meretz list, had just 40 seats.

It was a steady decline that likely played a role in Gantz’s decision to join a unity government with Netanyahu rather than risk a fourth consecutive race.

But the decline continued. An August 7 poll by the pollster Mano Geva for Channel 12 gave the center-left (now consisting of Blue and White, Yesh Atid and Meretz) 35 seats, where it seemed to stabilize until early December. Polls by the same pollster on October 18, November 27, and December 3 gave the same group of parties 33, 33 and 34 seats respectively.

Then, on December 8, Gideon Sa’ar announced his new party, which he described as a right-wing alternative to Netanyahu. The next Channel 12-Mano Geva poll on December 9 saw the combined figure for Blue and White, Yesh Atid and Meretz tumble once again, this time to 27. Follow-up polls on December 15 and 22 clocked in at 26 seats.

It’s been a startling plummet. Over 20 months, from April 2019 to December 2020, the number of seats won by Zionist parties that did not self-identify as “right” tumbled from 49 to 26, a 47% drop.

Then-Blue and White party co-chair Yair Lapid casts his ballot at a voting station in Tel Aviv during national elections, September 17, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Where did they go?

There are two ways of answering the question of where those voters are now encamped. One can try to poll them, asking a cross-section of the Israeli public who they voted for in April 2019, and following up with center-left voters from that election with questions about their choices in the ensuing races.

Or one can turn to a tool like the Madad to track the scattering of those votes. The “coalition monitor” graph shows in bold, unmistakable lines which political camps grew as the center-left imploded.

Put simply, center-left voters went to the anti-Netanyahu right – as the green and purple lines on the graph below make clear. Wither goes the one, the other mirrors in the opposite direction.

“Coalition monitor” graph from The Madad poll tracking website, screenshot December 31, 2020.

Thus on December 9, the center-left (defined by The Madad slightly differently than by this writer) came to 39 seats in an average of several polls, while the “right without Likud” group polled at 45.6 seats on average.

Just over two weeks later, on December 27, the center-left shrank more than six seats while the non-Likud right grew by 10. (The remaining seats may have come from Likud itself.)

And that’s just in the past month.

Center-left voters disenchanted with the old center-left choices “either don’t know who they’re voting for or they’re parked for a bit with Sa’ar, out of a sense that he might be the alternative to Netanyahu,” Rosner believes.

Many analysts have already suggested as much on the evidence of two or three consecutive polls. But a tool like The Madad clarifies the picture over time, and reveals that a great deal of the center-left has been comfortable voting for certain versions of the Israeli right for many months now.

Then-Likud MK Gideon Sa’ar speaks to the press after casting his ballot in the party’s primary election, in Tel Aviv on December 26, 2019. (Jack Guez/AFP)

The graph clarifies, too, the conundrum for left-wing voters that’s responsible for the camp’s diminution in the polls.

As Rosner puts it, left-leaning voters are asking themselves a painful question: “Do we vote for the left, knowing clearly that there’s no left-wing alternative to Netanyahu, or do we vote for Sa’ar in the belief that he’ll be an alternative? It’s a choice between a tactical vote and an ideological one. It’s a very difficult choice.”

Since the center-left “must always play with bad cards [demographically], it only has two options. It can try to dress up as right-wing — to play this game of being ‘center’ and try to get votes from the right — or it can try to maximize its own vote potential as much as possible and hope for a collapse on the right, for leaders who squabble and bicker with each other. Imagine if there was no conflict between Netanyahu and Sa’ar or between Netanyahu and Liberman. If the right played well with each other, there’d be no contest.”

The left’s best chance — as its tactically-minded voters understand — is to capitalize on “the breaches in the right’s line: The fight against Netanyahu, the potential to pull away the Haredim,” Rosner says.

Rebuilding the camp

Some see in the center-left’s confusion a moment of opportunity, a chance to gather the scattered shards of the camp in a new framework.

Tel Aviv residents wear face masks as they walk through the crowded Carmel Market in the coastal city, hours before the country goes into a third coronavirus lockdown, on December 27, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

On Tuesday, Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, vying to become the next chief of the secular left-leaning tribe, announced a run for national office in a new party dubbed “The Israelis.”

The party, like secularist rival Yesh Atid, is bidding to reassemble the center-left alliance that not so long ago, just 630 days before Huldai’s announcement, won 41% of the Knesset at the ballot box.

Wednesday already saw four significant polls examining Huldai’s effect. All are included in the Madad as of Thursday afternoon. They give Huldai an average of 8 seats.

More interesting, however, was which parties lost seats as Huldai’s new faction carved out eight of its own – an indicator, perhaps, of where the center-left vote is now biding its time. An analysis by Rosner showed Yesh Atid lost three seats, Sa’ar’s and Gantz’s parties each lost two, and Yamina, Yisrael Beytenu and Meretz lost one apiece.

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai celebrates with his wife at his campaign headquarters, after winning the Tel Aviv municipal elections on October 30, 2018. (Flash90)

And what happened to the center-left as a whole, which began the week with just 26 seats? Initial polling after Huldai’s announcement now puts it at 30.

Is that the start of a turnaround, or the sum total of Huldai’s effect going forward? Can the grizzled veteran of left-leaning Tel Aviv politics reassemble Gantz’s formerly plausible alternative to Netanyahu from the dispersed remnants of a center-left now scattered across the political map?

For the moment, at least, to quote The Madad’s latest analysis (Hebrew link) of the polling data, “no one” — neither Netanyahu nor his opponents on either right or left — “has a realistic coalition.”

The center-left has shrunk by almost half since April 2019, but it did so in ways that did not change the underlying deadlock. That is, those voters are still in the system, and still oppose Netanyahu’s continued rule. Israel is now headed to a fourth election in two years. There’s growing evidence to suggest it may soon be headed to a fifth.

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