The Israeli Political Spectrum Shift

In the last few years, particularly in the last election, Israeli voters have seen a large shift of the entire political spectrum towards the left. As well, the political parties of the Left bloc have seen a large decline in the numbers and support of their traditional voters. This is largely because of a confluence of a number of trends in political behavior and can be explained by an analysis of different models of political action. Similarly, these models can be used to explain and predict future events and political tactics.

The shift of the political spectrum towards the left has occurred because of a number of factors. The worldwide trend of decrease in levels of turnout for political participation documented by Dalton (2002) is one explanation for the decrease in the voting for the left. While this decrease has not been as drastic in Israel as it has been in other countries, it can still be seen in the volatility of election results and voters shifting from party to party, as well as in public opinion polls of declining trust in public institutions. Because of this (or perhaps causing it) is the appearance and rise of numerous other types of political participation- from political interest groups to NGOs and lobbyists- people are looking for and finding new ways of participating in society.

While the trend of declining public trust is potentially harmful in the long run for national political systems (Shamir & Arian, 2002), it also accounts for the shift in the Israeli political spectrum. Anger over government performance and politics leads some to abstention, but it can also generally lead to questioning long held political beliefs. Hetherington (2005) for example attributes the ascendency and domination of the American Right in the last 30 years to this declining political trust (which in the States resulted in an increase of conservative public policy). The emerging of “new” politics mixes in with this declining political trust with volatile results.

Yishay (1999) describes the five simultaneous elements of change to “new” politics (generally described as a moving public focus away from economic and welfare security to ideals of rights accomplished by well-educated, economically secure, self-motivated citizens) as an affluent socio-economic environment, shift in values and attitudes, changes in partisan alignment, shifts in political behavior and a slide in political agendas towards “politics of identity.” These elements are all seen in Israel and have increased focus on the rights of people and less on the socio-economic needs and security (this is not to say that security isn’t a top priority still in the Israeli state). Combined with the declining public trust, this has shifted the political spectrum to the left (opposite of what occurred in the US according to Hetheringon, 2005) as people become more interested in equality, justice and rights of all(even for Palestinians) than they are in economic security. An intriguing example of this change in political discourse is the acceptance of major parties on the political right, particularly the Likud, of the need for a two-state solution and recognition of Palestinian need of a state.

This shifting of the electorate to the left was further influenced by the individualization of politics which accounts for changes on an individual level as well. Shamir and Arian (1999) describe how issue voting has increased in importance in the last years and social cleavages have decreased in ability to explain certain electoral behaviors. Their theory of collective identity binds together other models of voter behavior, such as the sociological, psychological and the economic approach. While these models are instructive, it can be shown that the sociological model isn’t as applicable today than it has been in the past (Wattenberg, 1995). It can also be argued that the psychological model, built as it is upon psychological affiliation with one party, is becoming less influential as party alignment is declining. It still contains many other elements, such as corollary theories such as the Funnel theory, that can be shown to still be large in effect. The economic perspective and economic voting (via the responsibility hypothesis, Lewis-Beck & Paldam, 2000) though, as an extension of rational choice, is becoming more and more important, especially in the wake of increasingly candidate centered (or personalized) politics in political institutions, the media and politician behavior (Rahat & Sheafer, 2007). Israeli voters, while slowly coming to choose candidates over parties (this was especially pertinent during the time of the direct election of the Prime Minister), have come to rely to a greater extent on specific issues, usually choosing one or two basic issues to extrapolate whether or not a candidate is a good choice. Because the main issues of importance within Israel generally revolve around security, the political left has been hampered as events such as the Second Intifada, the Second Lebanon War, and the Gaza War have convinced large portions of the public that they are in need of strong security oriented leadership- typically not found on the left. This has caused many on the left to shift their votes to the right a bit.

Others have shifted their votes away from their first parties of choice on the left to more centrist parties such as Kadima because of a desire to have more influence in the shaping of the ruling coalition. Within the Rational choice model, there are two accepted types of voters: expressive/sincere voters and instrumental/strategic voters. The first will always choose to vote for their first choice party as an expression of their desires. The second, however, will vote strategically keeping in mind that they can influence the formation and policy of the government more if they unite with a larger consensus to prevent the opposite bloc from gaining power in the coalition bargaining. For instance, many on the left would choose to vote for Kadima because they felt that that party had a good chance of defeating the Likud numerically and thus be asked to form the coalition (which would then probably include their party of first choice). Within the PR multiparty coalition governance system of Israel, this is not a negligible possibility (Aldrich, et al, 2005). However, in the last election it seems that this possibility backfired, as Kadima did manage to garner more votes and MKs than the Likud, but failed to have the backing from enough other parties to form a workable coalition.

Other models for political behavior can be useful in discussing how the Israeli voters are moving away from the perceived left (I say perceived, because it is likely that many of the voters have stayed in the same place ideologically, but because of the spectrum shift, they now find themselves more centrist than leftist) and can assist in the prediction of what will occur in the future. For example, the median model, which describes the candidate need to maximize their potential voters by placing themselves centrally, is related to the proximity model, wherein voters, unable to find an exact ideological fit in the parties, will choose that party which is in closest proximity to them on certain issues. The candidates though must take into account in addition to simple spatial proximity, also directional aspects and characteristics of intensity among voters (Merrill & Grofman, 1999). This will play out in the next elections, as the parties, specifically those on the left, will be forced to reinvent themselves in light of the changed political spectrum and place themselves strategically with new platforms and policies to attract the largest amount of voters. It can already be seen how this has played into Kadima’s hands, as they received so many votes from the left side, despite being a centrist party.

Perhaps the best way for the Left to revive itself though is to pay attention to the principles of the Affective Intelligence model and the Prospect theory. The affective intelligence theory (Marcus, et al, 2000) posits that people, in order to make sense of the various domains and demands of life, operate via two distinct emotional systems: a dispositional and a surveillance system. The first monitors every day interactions assessing successes and failures, while the second looks for novelty or threats in the environment. People will only act out when by means of this system they feel anxious or threatened by new information- in the political behavior arena, they will only act (vote) to change the status quo when they feel that there is a threat or problem with it. For example, in or after periods of high terror, the public shifts to support the right wing’s strict policies on security, as they feel anxious about new developments (Berrebi & Klor, 2006).

Prospect theory is a reaction to certain limitations on rational choice. Put forward by Quatrone & Tversky (1988), the theory predicts that people will exhibit risk aversion in domains of possible gains, but risk seeking behavior in domains of possible losses. Thus, combining these facts with the Affective Intelligence model, the Left must work to convince the public that the risk of shifting to Leftist parties and leadership is less than that of staying with a rightist coalition by raising public anxiety on issues, such as economics, candidate performance, or even security. They can effectively do this by playing on peoples’ emotions with regard to decreasing levels of terror or using recent events (such as the Flotilla attack) to discredit the Right’s near “ownership” of the issue of security. Worrying the public that the right cannot bring full security nor peace and publishing their failures could revive the efforts of the left and the peace camp by increasing voting behavior in their favor.

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