You are here
The state of Israeli politics: Elections and group appeals
Israel is in the midst of a prolonged and historic political crisis. It began in April 2019 when, for the first time, a government didn’t successfully form after a general election. Five months later, in September 2019, a second election was held, marking yet another historic moment—the first time Israelis went to the polls twice in the same year. But, to no avail. No government was formed yet again, and Israelis again went to the polls in March 2020, the third time in less than 12 months. This time, after 14 weeks of negotiations, the 35th government was formed, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, but it didn’t survive for long. Amid the Covid-19 pandemic and Netanyahu’s legal troubles, the government dissolved a mere seven months later for failure to pass a budget, and a fourth election was set for 23 March 2021.
The origins of this political crisis are traced, at least partially, to the disagreement over the law regulating mandatory conscription of Israeli men and women. Historically, Jewish religious Ultra-Orthodox Yeshiva students have been exempted from conscription, an issue that’s been contentious for some years now. In its most recent iteration in late 2018, the attempt to reach a compromise failed after Yesh Atid, a secular centrist opposition party without which the government didn’t have enough votes, announced it wouldn’t support a new bill. Besides, two coalition parties—Shas and United Torah Judaism (both Ultra-Orthodox Jewish religious parties)—opposed the bill themselves, resulting in the dissolution of the 34th government and the April 2019 election.
This disagreement highlights one of the main features of the Israeli party system— social groups understood in terms of shared socio-demographic characteristics rather than shared political opinions take up significant political space. Israeli parties, therefore, pay particular attention to these social groups. In the blog, rather than debate the details of the political crisis itself, I take the opportunity to showcase the centrepiece of my work, the concept of group appeals, while commenting on the ongoing Israeli election campaign.
Israel’s society is heterogeneous, composed of multiple ethnic, religious, and linguistic minorities. Shamir and Arian characterize the Israeli political system as based on “boundaries that divide groups into different communal and social entities…” Combining this complex social structure with the highly proportional features of the Israeli electoral system, we get a quite fragmented party system. A total of 44 different parties gained seats in the Israeli parliament in 12 elections between 1977 and 2015, only eight of which contested more than half of the twelve: HADASH (the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality, a joined Jewish-Arab communist party); HaAvoda (the Israeli Labor party); Meretz (left-wing secular party); MAFDAL (National Religious Party); SHAS (Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Sephardic party); UTJ (Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Ashkenazi party); LIKUD (conservative party); and RAAM (United Arab List).
Already in this list, we see a pattern: multiple parties can be identified as so-called sectarian parties that “provide a clear focus of identification for specific social groups…” (Kenig, Rahat and Hazan 2005, 35) and supposedly represent specific sectors in society (like the Arab and religious parties). But how do we know whether these parties actively seek to represent these (or other) social groups? We look at the appeals they make.
Until recently, parties’ appeals have primarily been understood in terms of policies. During election campaigns, parties say to voters that if you elect us, we promise to enact in office these policies that will benefit you. These appeals may be all about policy, making no reference to any social group that might benefit from them. But there is an aspect to parties' appeals—the group. My work joins a growing scholarship that shifts our attention away from (almost) exclusive dealings with parties’ policy positions to a broader, more complete understanding of the complexities of politics. To do so, we need to distinguish what parties say from whom they are saying it to and examine the group appeal, which explicitly or implicitly addresses a specific social group.
Group-based appeals take many forms. Implicit appeals include: contesting seats only in geographic areas where a group is concentrated; using a language/dialect associated with a specific linguistic group (Chandra 2011); getting endorsed by an organization representing certain groups (Arceneaux and Kolodny 2009); stating a party’s distance from (Thau 2019) / opposition to particular groups (Stückelberger 2017); using symbols or images particular to a group (Holman, Schneider, and Pondel 2015); and/or fielding candidates who are members of a specific social group (Huddy 2003). Explicit appeals are found in statements of affiliation to (Thau 2019) / support of a particular group (Stückelberger 2017) and in parties’ names. This last one is perhaps the easiest to spot: e.g., the Christian Democratic Appeal in the Netherlands, the Scottish National Party in Britain, the Swedish People’s Party in Finland, or the Christian Democrats in Sweden. The Israeli party system, both historically and presently, features multiple parties with a social group in its name: e.g., The National Religious Party, Am Ehad-the workers’ and pensioners’ party, and the Joint Arab List.
What can we learn from these group appeals?
39 electoral lists are set to contest the upcoming elections. Of these, 9 to 14 stand a chance to pass the legal threshold. The covid-19 pandemic and the government’s handling of it, particularly the economy, as is the question of whether Netanyahu will be able to form a government, are at the centre of the campaign. The latter is splitting parties into those that say they’ll refuse to sit in a Netanyahu-led government (Yesh Atid, New Hope, Joint List, Yisrael Beitenu, Labour, Blue and White, and Meretz), and those who won’t make such a commitment (Shas, United Torah Judaism, Religious Zionist Party, Yamina, and United Arab List). More interestingly, though, group-based appeals are nevertheless found among the various leading parties.
Labour (once the dominant party and today faced with the possibility of not gaining any seats in parliament) elected a woman, Meirav Michaeli, as its leader (the only party to do so this round) and used zipper quotas to fill the first 10 slots on its list with an equal number of women and men. Yesh Atid, which polls show may end up the second-largest party, shared its plan to help the elderly, as did New Hope, while Avigdor Liberman, the chair of Yisrael Beiteinu, used social media to state his party’s distance from the Ultra-Orthodox Religious community. Perhaps the most interesting use of group appeals thus far, however, has been Netanyahu’s appeals to the Arab population. While such appeals aren’t exactly new (as I show in my work), their extent in this election is unusual, especially in light of the infamous outcry by Netanyahu in 2015 about Arabs “rushing to the polls in droves” in an attempt to motivate his base. This time around, we see many posts in Arabic or mentioning the Arab population on Netanyahu’s social media, as well as multiple visits and frequent discussion of plans to tackle crime issues among the Arab population.
These examples of the various forms of group-based appeals, both explicit and implicit, showcase both the centrality of social groups to Israeli politics and the importance of understanding the concept of group appeals. They aren’t used only by so-called sectarian parties, which we can expect to make such appeals. Instead, group appeals are made by all sorts of parties, including so-called aggregate catch-all parties, that generally appeal to the broader population. Even more importantly, observing these appeals in Israel adds to what we are beginning to learn: group appeals are prevalent among parties across various European countries as Thau (2019) finds such appeals made by the Labour and Conservative UK parties, and Stückelberger (2017) finds them in multiple parties in Switzerland, Germany, and the Netherlands. I find them in nearly 60 various parties Israel and the Netherlands, between 1977-2015.* The study of group appeals is new and requires significant additional effort to collect and analyze data. These appeals are an integral part of parties' behaviour, both historically and today, and their examination will contribute significantly to our understanding of parties and party systems.
Alona Dolinsky is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University and a member of the PSA. Her research interests include comparative party politics, candidate selection, coalition formation, Western European politics, British politics, and Israeli politics.
Her dissertation, titled Parties’ Group Appeals and Their Implications for Inter- and Intra-Party Behaviour, set to be defended in the coming month. Image credit: Randall Niles/Flickr.