April 11, 2019   5 mins

On the day of the election, 16-year-old Yehuda stood outside a bustling Jerusalem polling station wearing a black velvet skullcap and a Likud T-shirt. As voters walked in, he thrust a mock ballot slip bearing the party’s initials into their hands – it was a last minute plea for Benjamin Netanyahu’s reelection.

Yehuda is too young to vote — the voting age here is 18 — but he was deeply invested in the outcome of this week’s election, which Netanyahu went on to win. Handing out the mock ballot slips was more than a stunt, it was an act of devotion to the prime minister who has been in power for more than half of his life.

“There’s no one like Bibi,” he said, using Netanyahu’s nickname. “The Likud is like family and friends.”

Yehuda’s enthusiasm isn’t unusual. It’s part of a significant trend in Israel: young people love Netanyahu. And they most probably played a significant role in his reelection. Though we don’t yet know the breakdown of election results by age, a pre-election poll revealed Netanyahu’s popularity with young and first-time voters.

The survey, by the Israel Democracy Institute, showed that 65% of Israelis between the ages of 18-24 preferred Netanyahu while just 17% wanted his rival Benny Gantz. Among Israelis over 65, Gantz was much more popular — 53% preferred him, while 35% wanted Netanyahu.

Broadly speaking, Jewish Israeli youth like Netanyahu because they tend to be Right wing, the dominant ideology in Israel. Here, as opposed to Europe, the Right-Left divide is not related to social issues and economics but to security, defense, and the peace process.

More than half of the population, according to Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, would identify itself as being on the Right. Among religious Jews, a growing sector of the population given the high birth rates in the orthodox communities, that tendency is even more prevalent.

“Keeping in mind that first-time voters are greatly influenced by their family and home environment,” said Plesner, “and given the disproportionate demographic growth of the ultra-Orthodox population, the logical conclusion is that the current rightward trends are expected to continue.”

But religious demographics are only part of the explanation. These young voters are a generation of sceptics when it comes to the idea of peace between Israelis and Palestinians. They support Netanyahu because they believe his message that Israel must live by the sword. “The hope or yearning for peace is foreign to them,” said Plesner.

They were born in the late 1990s or very early 2000s, in the wake of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin at the hands of a Jewish extremist who opposed territorial compromise with the Palestinians. They were raised in the shadow of the bloody Second Intifada, and were just starting school when Israel evacuated Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip in 2005. They have lived through three wars between Israel and Hamas in Gaza — in 2008-2009, in 2012, and in 2014. And now most of them are in the Israeli army, with many enforcing a 52-year-long military occupation.

On Election Day in Har Homa, a Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem, a 20-year-old named Roni was sitting at a table inside a polling station in an elementary school. She is a soldier in the Israeli military’s home front command and had spent the day helping with the ballot. She had already cast her first ever vote. Her pick? Netanyahu.

Roni said she didn’t care that Netanyahu was facing corruption charges in several cases, pending a hearing. She was impressed by his diplomacy, and especially his close relationship with Donald Trump. Like many Israelis, she was also voting on security. “The security we have had in the past decade is the best we have ever had,” she said.

Roni lives in Maale Adumim, another settlement in the West Bank. A few days before the poll, Netanyahu promised that he would annex these settlements if he were reelected. It was an idea that resonated with her, even though she conceded it would be “problematic” – since most countries reject Israel’s occupation. Netanyahu is “the only one that would be able to do it,” she said.

In her view, peace between Israelis and Palestinians is impossible. “I don’t think there is ever going to be peace,” she said. “We both want the same thing. We want Jerusalem, they want Jerusalem. They want to have a country but they want it on our land. It is like two babies wanting the same candy. One will get it one, one won’t. We got it.” Sharing the land is not an option. “I think that would be a disgrace for the soldiers that died protecting the country,” she said, “the soldiers’ blood that was shed all over Jerusalem, all over the West Bank, all over the country.”

Nor does she believe that the Palestinians will give up their fight even if a compromise is reached.

Israel’s youth weren’t always so Right wing. Roby Nathanson is the director of the Macro Center for Political Economics in Israel, which polls the attitudes of Israeli youth every six years. When the survey began, in 1998, its respondents were the “generation of peace”, he said. But attitudes shifted to the Right over the years as the peace process floundered.

A critical point was the Israeli evacuation of settlements from Gaza in 2005, which was followed by repeated wars between Israel and Hamas. There are many reasons for this turn of events — Israel’s siege, Hamas’s militancy, and other regional developments — but many bought a simple story, believing that Israel gave up land and got rockets in return.

In the 2010 survey, the first one following the Gaza withdrawal, Nathanson said he noticed more extreme attitudes from the youth than ever before.  “We identified racist opinions among the youngsters,” he said. “We were very astonished about these positions.”

Today, these opinions are no longer surprising. In the 2016 survey, the most recent one, 40% of Jewish teenagers (15-18) and 44% of Jewish young people (21-24) said they “think that Arab citizens of Israel should be prohibited from being elected to the Knesset”.

According to Nathanson, Netanyahu is particularly appealing to first-time voters because his party invests in their development. Bibi may be notorious for elbowing out competitors within his own party, but in the lower ranks of Likud, young people feel encouraged to take on leadership positions. The populist party “gives many young leaders opportunities to grow into politics and be leaders of the future”.

Nathanson contrasts this with Likud’s historic alternative, Labor, which is more calcified when it comes to growing the next generation of leaders. Labor are set for a historically low six seats in this election, compared to Likud’s projected 35. One of Labor’s few young stars, Stav Shaffir, did not come from within the party but was courted by it after leading a social justice protest movement in 2011.

It all marks a radical shift away from the Left’s vision of Israel – one that upholds human rights, the justice system, and works toward a negotiated solution with the Palestinians. “If you look at it statistically, the perspective for the secular, liberal, open-minded democratic society is not very rosy,” Nathanson says.

Instead, the future looks bright for the Right’s ideal: an Israel which prioritises the Jewish identity of the country over its democratic one, to the detriment, according to critics, of religious pluralism, the welfare of Israel’s Arab Palestinian minority, and the two-state solution. With demographics on his side, Netanyahu will be steering the country down this path for some time to come.

An American journalist, Naomi Zeveloff covers Israel and the Palestinian Territories and was The Forward’s former Middle East correspondent.