This shift in emphasis from security and cultural issues to economics reflects changes in the demographics of Israel's political parties, which themselves reflect changes in the demographics of Israeli voters, though in a complicated way. Over the past few years, many of Israel's political parties have grown more heterogeneous in ideology and varied in membership.
Kadima, which governed the country from 2005 to 2009 under Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, was an amalgam of sobered socialists and reconstructed Greater Israelites. The recent fusing of Netanyahu's Likud and Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu into Likud-Beiteinu brings Russian free market enthusiasts with a high-European disdain for Arabs together with second-generation settlers and neoliberals in bespoke suits. Haim Amsalem, a former Knesset representative of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, has started a joint religious-secular party named Am Shalem dedicated to "combating racism" against Sepharadim (though in interviews, Amsalem has said against Palestinians as well), pushing the ultra-Orthodox into jobs and the army, and "restor[ing] moderate Judaism to Israel," as the party's website explains.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews, who have traditionally preferred their own identity-based parties, ran this year in primaries for both Likud and Labor, suggesting a further shuffling of religious identities in Israel's old parties.
Unsurprisingly, this growing diversity within parties has come at a time when old voting blocs have begun to disintegrate. Although the million or so immigrants from the former Soviet Union still tend to oppose territorial compromise with the Palestinians and reject welfare-state economic policies that recall the brutal socialism of their birthplace, their political affiliations are increasingly spread across the political spectrum. Israeli Palestinians, though they are largely ignored by Jewish media and politicians during elections, will vote in larger numbers than ever for majority-Jewish parties, chiefly Labor. Settlers' votes are also spread among more political parties than in the past (though almost exclusively on the right). The same is true of Mizrahim, Haredim, and, no less, secular cosmopolitans.
The decline of the old voting blocs has come with a decline of old ideologies as well, on the right and on the left. Among the most notable losers in the Likud primaries was Benny Begin, son of Menachem Begin, the legendary founder of Likud and its first prime minister. The younger Begin represented perhaps the last of the old Likud ideologues, whose commitment to retaining the West Bank was matched, perhaps incongruously, by a commitment to liberal democracy blind to religious and ethnic background. Most politicians today, on the right and left, insist that they maintain consistent political opinions; few, however, will cop to having an ideology. In the past, ideology was de rigueur; now it is vaguely déclassé.
Taken together, these trends suggest that Israeli politics have recently lost definition and grown shaggier. They have changed from a French garden, sharp of line and in fine trim, into an English garden in which the shrubs and the trees have expanded into one another, and a skein of ivy stretches from this plant to that.
Where all this will lead in the long run is worth pondering. In the short run, though, it will lead us to nowhere new. This is in part because in Israel voting patterns are a lagging indicator of political change. The massive immigration of Mizrahi Jews to Israel came to an end in 1964, but did not receive full expression in the ballot box until the 1977 elections, when Likud won for the first time, ending three decades of left-wing rule dating back to the country's founding. A similarly profound political shift seems to be happening today, but while most of the new, established parties have scrambled to exploit the changing landscape of Israeli politics, no one (myself included) has yet come to understand the changes and what they mean.
Over time, the blurring of ideological definition and the demographic reshuffling that one sees in this election may or may not change Israeli policy in fundamental ways. The new focus on issues like housing, education, tax equity, and so forth could give rise to political coalitions that were unthinkable in the past: say, between the secular social democrats of the Labor Party and the Halakhocrats of the ultra-Orthodox parties whose constituents benefit most from government aid. The focus on economics may, in time, even launch sustained public discussion of the practical costs of the occupation, which may in turn diminish the electorate's patience for the status quo.
Or it may not. And this is the point. Surveying with satisfaction the American financial system in 2005, Alan Greenspan praised "the remarkable resilience of the banking system," which would carry on much as it is for years to come. The lesson many will learn from this election is that nothing changes in Israeli politics, which will slouch and shuffle on much as it is for years to come. This lesson is wrong, though it will take time until this is obvious to all.