The split in the Israeli electorate: The Netanyahu monopoly

Netanyahu portrays his conservative loyalty, authoritarian style regularly to his constituents.

By PAUL SHRELL-FOX
January 3, 2019 21:47
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a weekly cabinet meeting, December 23rd, 2018

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a weekly cabinet meeting, December 23rd, 2018. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

 
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In his 2012 book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, Jonathan Haidt presents a theory of moral reasoning to help understand the vehement and sometimes violent divisions between people and parties along political and religious spectra. I will first briefly outline his theory and then attempt to explain why Israel Benjamin Netanyahu holds an apparent monopoly on Israeli politics.

Haidt enumerates five basic principles in his Moral Foundation theory: Care, Fairness, Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity (or Purity). The first two, Care and Fairness tend to factor together and are overwhelmingly valued by people who consider themselves “progressive.” Care is defined as the impulse to cherish and protect others. Fairness is the overarching value to render justice according to a shared or common set of social rules and norms. In these political spheres other foundations are less central.
Under certain circumstances, those who do value Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity are viewed as immoral by political progressives. This is not always the case. There are certain self-identified progressives who place a premium on one or other foundations. Religious progressives come to mind. Though Care and Fairness are overwhelmingly important, issues having to do with non-political Sanctity or Authority will be viewed as significant foundations for moral behavior.

The remaining three value axes, Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity also tend to converge mutually. Those on the Right of the political/religious divide value these three equally with Care and Fairness. To those on the Right all five factors are crucial when drawing value-based conclusions. Studies have found that the more conservative the individual, the more they tend to rate all five foundations as nearly equally essential to living a moral life.

I want to clarify one important point: people from all walks of life value each of the above foundations. However, the emphases placed on any one of them will help identify and shape political self-definition. Be that left-leaning, liberal or progressive as opposed to right-leaning or conservative.

We will see that to the degree that political conservatives value Loyalty, Sanctity and Authority, they continue to vote for Netanyahu as he consistently portrays himself as maintaining and elevating those values – at least on par with the values of Care and Fairness, if not more so.


Traditionally, the Israeli Right consists of the religious parties and others that represent the more “loyalist” or nationalistic ones. The religious parties espouse classical religious values such as respect for authority and they tend to view the land of Israel as “pure”. In addition, they place a great deal of significance on group loyalty. As such, recent developments not-withstanding, they will rarely call for the resignation of a rightist party leader or prime minister. Anyone familiar with the Israeli Left knows that one apparent defeat can be the end of one’s political career. One need only look at the number of politicians who have led the Israeli Left after Ben-Gurion and compare them with the leaders of the Right during the same period. Leaders of the Labor party are innumerable (11 to be exact). There have been a mere three leaders of the Right at the same time.

Netanyahu portrays his conservative loyalty, authoritarian style regularly to his constituents. Even though he has been willing to consider certain “sacrifices for peace” he has never been put to the test. The fear of getting someone even “more Left than Bibi” keeps him in his seat. He certainly imbues the Land of Israel with rhetorical Sanctity. He also plays on the conservative voters’ fears of the impure when he exclaims that “the Arabs are running to the polls” as he did so in the previous election.

Netanyahu also runs the Likud with regular Loyalty tests. This is not the same as the ill-conceived Nation-State Law. This law was proposed by those who were trying to earn loyalty points. Netanyahu identifies possible challengers to his authority and either placates them with governmental posts outside of Israel, or finds a way to label them as corrosive to party unity and forces them to leave, apparently of their own will.

The next question is “so what?” To the degree that the Israeli electorate is split and to the degree that the Left cannot get its act together, what difference does it make? I think that there have been positive and negative outcomes to the way this plays out in contemporary Israel. It seems that Netanyahu’s strategy of authoritarian leadership wins points with many of our Arab neighbors and their leaders. Since they are both religiously and politically conservative they are able to find a long-term ally in Netanyahu, who can help them confront challengers from within and without. And it is a good long-term strategy for Israel to have relationships with regimes such as Saudi Arabia, UAE and the like. They are not the perfect friends. But they are better as friends than as enemies.
However, on the domestic front the picture is not quite as clear. [Near] absolute power, it seems, will absolutely corrupt. As time has gone on more and more credible charges are being brought that point to Netanyahu’s alleged corruption. It is not entirely clear if any of these will lead to indictment or conviction. It seems that many democracies have dealt with this by instituting term limits. Terms limits are not so simple in a parliamentary democracy like Israel’s. Briefly, such a system could work if the party head could be elected twice, while during the second term he or she could groom a replacement who would become the party’s head in the middle of that term. This way no single person maintains effective boundless leadership, but the country can still have a party be elected again and again.

The author is a Lecturer in Jewish Studies at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies and a psychologist whose research interests include Judaism in evolutionary perspective, the evolution of altruism and the interface between science & religion.

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