For anyone following the latest polls, the forthcoming elections in Israel are a done deal. The right-religious bloc is consistently outscoring the center-left bloc by anywhere between 16 and 20 seats in the 120-member Knesset. But is the outcome indeed already predetermined? The backbone of the support for another coalition led by Binyamin Netanyahu are, it is being claimed, women (according to the Ma’agar Mohot survey published in Maariv this past weekend, 58% of right-wing voters are women as opposed to 42% men). This finding stands in stark contrast to voting patterns in the past elections, when Tzipi Livni and the Kadima party received 7% more votes from women than the Likud. Although the purported shift in the direction of the female vote is not easily explained (and may not actually exist), clearly Israeli elections are more gendered than many people acknowledge.
It is no longer possible to take for granted that men and women vote alike in Israel. A significant gender gap has emerged which can affect – and possibly determine – the outcome of the January 22 ballot. This gap stems from real differences in the ways in which men and women view politics and how these perspectives are translated into concrete voting preferences and then into representation. Israeli women today hold considerable electoral power: any party that ignores them does so at its peril.
A gender gap in voting is commonplace in western democracies. Immediately after World War Two, women favored conservative parties in greater numbers than men, thereby contributing to what is generally dubbed as the “classic” gender gap. For the past three decades and more, however, a “modern” gender gap characterizes electoral cycles: women tend to support parties to the left in greater numbers than men. The recent elections in the United States are a case in point: Barack Obama’s success at the polls was the result of a 20 point gender gap in his favor (the greatest in American history). Similar patterns are apparent in other countries as well.
The Israeli case, until recently, was considered to be somewhat unique. Not only has there never been a gender difference in participation rates in elections (unlike the situation in many established democracies), but, to date, gender differences in party preferences have only been identifiable at the political margins. Women have traditionally constituted about 60% of the voters of the Meretz party while they are only about 40% of the voters of parties to the right of the Likud. But in broad strokes, previous electoral studies found no real differences in left-right self-identification of men and women or in their voting preferences.
This pattern changed in the 2009 elections. Not only did gender gaps on the margins persist, but Kadima under Tzipi Livni outpolled Netanyahu’s Likud among women by approximately 7%, making it the largest party in the outgoing Knesset. It now seems that a similar gender gap is appearing ahead of the 2013 ballot, albeit in an unclear direction. It is therefore crucial to begin to understand what makes women and men vote differently in Israel today.
The first set of possible explanations relates to differences between men and women’s perspectives on key issues on the public agenda. In-depth electoral studies in Israel repeatedly show that there is very little variance between men and women on policy matters, although women do express somewhat more concern for security (as they define security) than men while also supporting peace efforts in greater numbers than their male counterparts.
Pre-election surveys prepared for political parties during the past few months reaffirm these findings. But they now show that women in Israel are also more preoccupied by economic questions, such as the rising cost of living and employment, than men. In addition, women express greater concern over the erosion of democracy, frequently attributed by scholars to differences emanating from a rising feminist consciousness and gender identity. A diversity of women’s voices on these matters pertains, but in general all recent research shows that the voting behavior of Israeli women is more issue-oriented and less emotional than that of men. Thus, shifts in female lifestyles, coupled with changes in the economic involvement of women, have had an impact on reshaping political values, thereby helping to account for gender realignments in voting.
The second set of explanations deals less with ideas and values and more with representation. In democratic countries, women tend to support women candidates (although not automatically, since cultural and structural factors also intervene). Researchers Michal Shamir, Hanna Herzog and Einat Gedalia discovered that in 2009 the same propensity was evinced in Israel as well. As before, the trend was evident at the margins (more women voting for Meretz, more men for parties right of the Likud). But in this round, Balad polled more votes from women than Hadash (both primarily Arab parties) because of the presence of a female candidate.
But 2009 was the year that women voters showed they had potential for impact in the mainstream as a voting bloc. At the very last minute, Kadima, with Tzipi Livni at its helm went the full distance by unabashedly courting female voters. She flicked away the Likud’s “it’s too big for her” smear campaign, telling voters that the leadership of a woman was just what Israel needed. Kadima succeeded beyond their own wildest expectations.
In the uncertain atmosphere of the current electoral season, those parties that pay attention to gender sensitivities may yet benefit substantially at the polls. And apparently many of them agree. That may help explain why in this election women stand at the head of five political parties: Sheli Yachimovich in Labor, Tzipi Livni in Hatnuah (The Movement), Zehava Galon in Meretz, as well as Yulia Shmalov-Berkovich in Calcala and Asma Zahalka Agbarieh of Da’am.
Furthermore, whether due to the changing political map or concerted efforts from women’s groups, women’s representation on many party lists has increased in the present campaign. Meretz has 50% in realistic slots; Yesh Atid has 40%; Balad 33%; Labor approximately 30%; and Kadima, the Jewish Home party and the Likud-Beyteinu about 20%. But the potential number of women in the next Knesset is not a firm guide to female voting preferences. Quantitative representation takes on meaning only when mediated by qualitative representation – a commitment to those issues of direct concern to women as citizens.
The right-left gender gap in party preferences and the ways that men and women voters diverge in making their decisions, all buttress the proposition that much more needs to be understood about the factors involved. How this knowledge is used is critical during the next few weeks. Parties on the right, center and the left should take note. Appeals to the female vote may tilt the outcome. It has happened before.
Women voters therefore have it in their hands to sway the election results – defying the projection of pundits and skeptics alike. They constitute a relatively high percentage of the still undecided; their electoral considerations have been ignored for too long, and their voting power is still underestimated. Women are not only in a position to make a difference; they can actually help to reframe priorities and norms. In this respect, the evolving gender realignment in Israeli politics – however poorly tracked and understood – holds immense potential for change.