Jerusalem — For the first time in her life, Efrat, a 19-year-old yeshiva student, will be voting in Israel’s national elections. Seated around a table with girlfriends in the food court of a downtown shopping mall, the soft-spoken teenager lists the issues most important to her.
“There needs to be more unity among all the people. Right now, there’s a distance between us. We need to be one nation, one people,” she says.
Efrat, who defines herself as right wing, says, “there has to be peace, but it needs to be a real peace. It has to be a peace that benefits Israel, not just the Palestinians.”
Shaking her head in resignation, she adds, “it probably doesn’t matter who you vote for because in the end, every government is the same. I don’t think these elections can get us out of the mud we’re stuck in.”
Even so, Efrat is planning to vote for Benjamin Netanyahu. “But I haven’t decided which political party to support,” she admits.
Disillusioned though they are with the peace process, the economy and just about everything else in the country, Israel’s younger generation will go to the polls on May 17 with a sense of determination, even mission.
That’s because young Israelis grow up with an appreciation for the electoral process and the fact that fully 80 percent of the electorate vote in national elections. A second reason is that the issues of peace and security — which have dominated Israeli politics for the past 51 years — have special meaning to younger voters.
Jacob Levy, president of the Gallop/Israel polling company, believes that peace and security are “much more important” to 18- to 21-year-olds than anything else on the national agenda.
“There are two reasons. First, they are going into the army or are already in it,” he says, “and second, they haven’t yet confronted other issues, such as the economy.”
According to Levy, first-time voters tend to vote for right-wing parties. “It’s not easy to serve in the [regular] army with leftist opinions,” he says. Studies have shown that once these soldiers become ordinary citizens and serve in the army as reservists, their views tend to become more moderate.
Mina Tzemech, another prominent pollster, says that while first-time voters are consumed with security, second-time voters are sometimes more concerned about the high cost of a university education and the availability of jobs. “It all depends on where they are in life,” she notes.
Tzemech, who like other pollsters is still compiling her data and therefore could not provide voting-pattern statistics, is willing to generalize on only one thing.
“First-time voters usually vote in the same camp as their parents, but some go toward the extreme,” she says. “For example, if parents vote Labor, the children may go to [the far-left party] Meretz. If the parents go Likud, the children may go to [far-right-wing candidate Benny] Begin or [the far-right-wing party] Moledet. Young people tend to be more emotional and more activist.”
Reuven Hazan, a political scientist at Hebrew University, stresses that young voters comprise a large, heterogeneous group. “You have to look at them as you would the rest of the population of Israel,” he asserts.
For one thing, Hazan says, “the two more extremist groups on the right and the left, the ultra-Orthodox and the Arabs, respectively, have a larger percentage of young people than the rest of Israel and they sort of cancel each other out. Then you have the young immigrant voters, who are almost all Russians. They predominantly vote right wing.”
While Hazan agrees that, as a group, young voters tend to be more right wing than their older counterparts, he has identified a subtle shift in voting patterns dating back to the 1992 election.
Referring to the 300,000 to 400,000 first-time voters who are not ultra-Orthodox, Russian or Arab, Hazan says, “it used to be that they voted more to the right. But in the last two elections, they’ve evened out to about 50-50 on the left and right.”
The political scientist theorizes that at the time, Yitzchak Rabin’s vast military experience won over some center-right voters who otherwise might not have trusted a left-wing candidate. “Maybe it was because Rabin led the left in ’92, and because he was assassinated in ’95,” he says. “With Barak, a former chief of staff, leading the left wing, I expect that we’ll continue to see this kind of even-handedness in the current election.”
Hazan believes that this latest generation of young voters has more opportunity to express itself politically than the generation that preceded it. “They didn’t grow up with a tradition of identifying with the two big parties. These parties, Labor and Likud, are on the decline and no longer monopolize politics.
“The 1996 Direct Election Law has created a tremendous split in voting,” she said, referring to the direct vote for a prime minister rather than a party. “People are freer today of traditional party identifications.”
Freer or not, most young people interviewed for this article pledged allegiance to an established party.
“I’ll vote for Bibi [Netanyahu] and Likud,” declared 18-year-old Noah Ephraim, waiting at a bus stop on King George Street. “Barak wants to divide Jerusalem and give it to the Arabs. We can’t let him do it.”
“If I could vote I’d support Barak and his coalition. I’m left wing and realize we have no right to govern the Palestinians,” says 16-year-old Yoav Shatz, who will be eligible to vote in two years.
Others, however, will take advantage of the newer parties.
“I plan to vote for Yisrael B’Aliyah,” says Ruth, a 23-year-old Russian whose citizenship was revoked two years ago. “I made aliyah as a Jew, but then, when I wanted to get married, the government claimed my family wasn’t Jewish. They allowed me to stay only after I said I would convert.”
Ruth says that Yisrael B’Aliyah understands the immigrants’ plight.
“Someone has to,” she asserts.