The Israeli right becomes more splintered, but perhaps stronger

The sudden and surprising announcement by Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked has many in the party trying to figure out their next moves.

Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, seen after their announcement in a press conference in Tel Aviv on Dec. 29, 2018, of the formation of the New Right Party. Photo by Yossi Zeliger/Flash90.
Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, seen after their announcement in a press conference in Tel Aviv on Dec. 29, 2018, of the formation of the New Right Party. Photo by Yossi Zeliger/Flash90.

The Israeli political right was plunged into uncertainty last week with the surprise announcement that the two leaders of the Jewish Home (Bayit Hayehudi) Party Education Minister Naftali Bennett and his political partner Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked were leaving the right-wing religious Zionist party to lead “The New Right” (Yemin Hahadash) Party to compete in the Knesset elections on April 9.

Bennett had been the undisputed leader of the Israeli parties to the right of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s ruling center-right Likud since emerging as the winner of the Bayit Hayehudi leadership primary ahead of the 2013 Knesset elections, leading it to an impressive 12 seats. The party dropped to eight seats in the 2015 Knesset election, but Jewish Home remained strong enough to be a central component in the Netanyahu coalition government, with Bennett and Shaked serving in senior cabinet posts. When they left, it was because the pair view themselves as future leaders of the nation, though do not consider the Jewish Home to be a powerful enough vehicle to take them there.

The sudden and surprising announcement by Bennett and Shaked has many in the party trying to figure out their next moves. The U.S.-born Doron Spielman, vice president of the City of David, was said to be planning to become a candidate in the Bayit Hayehudi primaries with the endorsement of Bennett. Days after the Bennett/Shaked announcement, Spielman told JNS, “I am not certain what to do, and I am trying to figure it out. Seeming to tip his hand slightly, Spielman said, “I do see it as a positive development. Shaked and Bennett want to create a party that will make a real difference. I am not certain how it will turn out. Bayit Hayedi is a political home, combining love of the Land of Israel and Jewish tradition. But that is not a large enough vessel to bring about sweeping change.”

Polls have shown that the New Right could gain about 10 seats in the next Knesset.

Speaking off the record, a senior Bayit Hayedi official told JNS, “I am trying to digest the news and figure out what to do next. I am in touch with party officials on both sides.”

He explained that most of the Jewish Home establishment, its deputy mayors, rabbis and assorted functionaries will remain in the Jewish Home, and are actually quite happy about the departure of Bennett and Shaked. As he said, “They prefer the core constituency because that way they regain control of the party from outsiders.”

The party official cautions that without Bennett and Shaked, the Jewish Home will struggle to pass the election threshold of four seats unless they run together with small parties to the right of them, including Tekuma, which ran as part of the Jewish Home in the past two elections, former Shas leader Eli Ishai’s Yachad Party and the far-right Itamar Ben-Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit Party. The party official lamented that Bayit Hayehudi will become a non-democratic party, canceling primary elections, and could be led by an extremist like Knesset member Bezalel Smotrich.

Efrat political activist Eve Harow colorfully told JNS, “Bennett and Shaked never quite fit the mold of the Jewish Home, which is an Orthodox religious Zionist party filled with men with beards.” The Jewish Home was created from the remnants of the National Religious Party and kept its relationship with its affiliated school system, the popular Bnei Akiva youth movement, and massive Torah academies and women’s seminaries. They also captured a majority of votes from observant residents from the settlement movement in Judea and Samaria. Bennett is the son of secular American immigrant parents, and he is married to a secular woman. Shaked is the first and only secular female Knesset member in the Jewish Home Party.

Harow says, “The creation of the New Right is a smart move with a very high upside. She suggests that the New Right could add minority candidates and will find personalities, like soccer player Eli Ohana and Jerusalem Post columnist Caroline Glick, who are politically on the right, but not observant. Bennett tried unsuccessfully to place Ohana on the Jewish Home list in the 2015 election. Harow says, “Clearly, the new list is a perceived threat to Likud and its leaders.”

Political activist Yisrael Medad from Shilo told JNS, “Bennett’s goal is to become prime minister, but he projects more popularity at this time than he actually has. Medad explains, “Back in the 1970s, I was involved in the formation  of the right-wing Tehiya Party, which was a breakaway from the NRP and the Likud. We were led by great candidates, including had scientist Yuval Ne’eman, the legendary underground figure Geula Cohen and settlement leader Hanan Porat. Even so, we could not flip most voters away from their traditional party, their political homes. I expect a similar problem this election.”

Shaked foresees Netanyahu and Likud winning the election, but predicts that this term will be the premier’s last, and it could be cut short. The New Right co-leader told the Calcalist “Outlook 2019” conference that the New Right will be a “dominant” part of the next coalition. Shaked said “possible indictments of Netanyahu for alleged corruption issued before or even after the election could bring about his early departure.

In Shaked’s view, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s decision on whether to indict “could have a profound influence on the formations of the next government and on Netanyahu’s ability to continue to lead the country.”

While Netanyahu insists that he will not step down even if indicted, Shaked puts forth: “We will see how the public takes it.”

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