Israel’s Generation Gap: A Pre-Election Survey

By Barbara Opall-Rome / Defense News Bureau Chief in Israel

HERZLIYA, Israel – On the eve of Israel’s Jan. 22 elections, I conducted an informal poll of friends, neighbors and ladies from the local hair salon in this prosperous beach town north of Tel Aviv.

It indicates an encouraging generational gap separating peers of my age – 50 and up – who support Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and further right parties from their adult children opting for centrist- and left-leaning alternatives.

Of the 35 parties competing in tomorrow’s election, older votes are split between Netanyahu and the ultra-nationalist Jewish Home party led by Naftali Bennett, a former Seyeret Matkal commando and Netanyahu staffer who made millions from the sale of his high-tech startup firm. Both parties are campaigning on national strength and rejection of compromises needed for a two-state Palestinian peace deal, with Bennett going a step further with calls to annex major areas of the West Bank.

Such responses to my admittedly unscientific survey were hardly surprising, given the rightward shift in the Israel electorate and Netanyahu’s presumptive lead by wide margins in multiple opinion polls.

What I didn’t expect, however, was the utter rejection of Israel’s current crop of leaders by my 38-year-old hairdresser, her relatively young clientele and all of my neighbors’ children, who are voting for new or marginalized parties spanning the center to far-left of the political gamut.

Most younger respondents say they are voting for Yair Lapid, a celebrity newscaster and columnist who last year started his own “There is a Future” party. Lapid’s centrist platform lacks diplomatic detail, focusing instead on improved education and more equitable sharing of the military burden and social benefits now favoring Israel’s highly subsidized religious sector.

Yet others are opting for the Meretz Party, whose three serving Knesset members represent the remnants of Israel’s once-thriving peace camp. Aside from its unequivocal call for an end to the Israeli occupation as part of a Palestinian peace deal, the Meretz platform promotes civic equality and greater rights for gay, lesbian and other minority sectors.

Not one of the two-dozen 20- to 40-year-olds expressed support for the opposition Labor Party of Israel’s founding father David Ben-Gurion and slain peacemaker Yitzhak Rabin. Likewise, not one of the younger voters planned to cast ballots for Kadima, a centrist party established by former prime ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert; or the Kadima-breakaway party of Tsipi Livni, a former foreign minister who actually won more votes than

Netanyahu, in the last election, yet failed to put together a coalition government.

Instead, my cursory findings point to a new generation of educated, secular suburbanites fed up with the old guard, disdainful of their parents’ politics and unwilling to settle for continued status quo.

Granted, my casual armchair sampling is hardly representative of the electorate writ large and my analysis is probably fatally flawed by an overdose of wishful thinking.

I didn’t poll young, typically rightwing voters from the occupied territories, religious Orthodox communities and those in areas of economic stress, but my sampling did include upwardly mobile offspring from Israel’s million-strong Russian immigrant sector.

A House Divided — One Family’s Window Into the Israeli Electorate

The strongest indication of a generational split came from neighbors across the street; where six members of an educated, upper-middle class, patriotic and civic-minded family plan to vote for five different parties at polar opposites of the political spectrum.

Sali, a 54-year-old educator and longtime principal of a school for the severely disabled, is voting for Bennett’s Jewish Home party. Her husband, Barrie, has a thriving business assessing health and safety standards in the restaurant industry. He’s voting for Likud.

Both are native-born veterans of the Israeli military who spent the early years of their marriage in Florida before returning to Israel in the mid-1990s to raise their four children.

Both said they were not concerned by the diplomatic stagnation at a time of strategic change sweeping the region. Nor were they bothered by the effect their respective votes could have on Israel’s growing diplomatic isolation and tension with Washington.

“We love the United States and value its support for Israel,” said Sali. “But we must determine what’s best for our country. We must stand firm in the face of political pressures.”

In contrast, their oldest son, John, married with a degree in international law, is voting for Hadash — the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality – a Jewish-Arab socialist party with four members now serving in the Israeli Knesset.

Their daughter Dani and youngest son, Mike, are voting Meretz while Arik – the middle son now serving in an elite combat unit near the Lebanese border – has already cast his vote for the Green Leaf party for decriminalizing cannabis and promoting human rights.

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