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Alliance seeks to revive both of their political fortunes

Beleaguered right-wing leaders Shaked and Hendel unite as Zionist Spirit party

Heads of merged Yamina and Derech Eretz say they will shoot for a unity government that includes both Netanyahu-led Likud and center-left, but not Arabs

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Ayelet Shaked holds a press conference with Yoaz Hendel to announce their Zionist Spirit party at Kfar Maccabiah in Ramat Gan, July 27, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Ayelet Shaked holds a press conference with Yoaz Hendel to announce their Zionist Spirit party at Kfar Maccabiah in Ramat Gan, July 27, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Vowing to reach across the aisle but not cooperate with Arab parties, Ayelet Shaked relaunched the right-wing Yamina party Wednesday, joining forces with Derech Eretz party leader Yoaz Hendel and rebranding the joint slate as Zionist Spirit.

Standing side by side after inking a merger deal, Shaked said the new alliance would work for a broad national Zionist government, one that would likely include Likud and its leader Benjamin Netanyahu.

“Only a vote for the Zionist spirit will ensure a broad national Zionist government,” Shaked, who is interior minister, announced to activists gathered in Ramat Gan’s Kfar Maccabiah, adding that “the Israeli government cannot rely on an Arab party.”

Communications Minister Hendel, who firmly resisted any partnership with Netanyahu in the outgoing Knesset, said a “unity government” would run the gamut from Likud to the left.

“I say this in a clear voice before the elections: [we want] a government that will be composed of the Likud and the center-left. There is no other way. In this government, we have learned that the exclusion of half the people leads to instability,” Hendel said.

Shaked and Hendel both helped lead Israel’s most diverse coalition through a rocky year, during which the political experiment united eight parties across the right, left, center, and Arab political corners on the promise of ousting longtime premier Netanyahu, but ultimately succumbed to ideological divisions on security and nationalist issues.

Derech Eretz was formerly part of New Hope, and its rebranded unification with Yamina is in advance of the November 1 elections, set after then-Yamina leader and then-prime minister Naftali Bennett drew the curtains on his government in June.

Zvi Hauser, who founded the two-man Derech Eretz party with Hendel, will also join the alliance, but was largely out of the spotlight during the festive launch party.

A central issue in the upcoming election is whether or not to back the popular but polarizing Netanyahu for prime minister. In the aftermath of the last election, Yamina refused to commit to backing Netanyahu or an alternative government, allowing Bennett to parlay his kingmaker position into a sweetheart deal that made him premier for a year, despite heading one of the Knesset’s smallest parties.

If Zionist Spirit manages to cross the electoral threshold of four Knesset seats, it could find itself in a similar position, with the ability to tip the scales toward securing a Likud-led coalition. In a succession of recent surveys, however, Yamina was polling far below the 3.25% threshold; Shaked’s alliance with Hendel is thus aimed at reviving both their fortunes.

Ayelet Shaked (Yamina) and Yoaz Hendel (Derech Eretz) merge their parties to form the Zionist Spirit party, July 27, 2022 (Ariel Zandberg)

Hendel noted that support for a Netanyahu-led government was conditioned on the potential coalition including elements from the center-left, many of which have balked at cooperating with Netanyahu due to his legal situation.

“We are adamantly opposed to a narrow Netanyahu government in which they will deal only with what is good for him. We are adamantly opposed to a narrow government on the left with the [opposition’s majority Arab] Joint List party and extremist elements,” Hendel continued.

Both Hendel and Shaked come to their unification with political baggage. Hendel and Hauser, who had previously merged with New Hope, were left out when that party reached a new deal with Benny Gantz’s Blue and White Party earlier this month.

Shaked contributes a party that shrank from seven mandates in March 2021 to polling at only two, after much of its base was frustrated with its post-election choices.

She made ameliorative overtures to her base to backtrack her prominent role in Israel’s 36th government, saying that her intention had been to stabilize the country after four back-to-back elections since 2019, but that she realized she made a mistake.

“I wish to do some soul-searching with the public that elected me. I know that many of you have been hurt,” she said, adding that “we wanted to prevent the madness of a fifth election. We thought about what is the right thing for the State of Israel at that time.”

“At the same time, in retrospect, the move was unsuccessful and a narrow government was unable to create governmental stability,” she continued, saying that the government both lacked Zionist spirt and cannot, in the future, rely on Arab lawmakers.

“The Zionist enterprise cannot depend on the fingers of elected representatives of the Arab public in Israel,” she added.

Interim Prime Minister Yair Lapid, center, speaks with Ra’am party leader Mansour Abbas ahead of the vote on a bill to dissolve the Knesset, June 30, 2022. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Bennett and Shaked’s Yamina party cultivated a right-wing, nationalist, pro-settler and pro-Jewish state base, but compromised on many of its principles to lead the coalition. Many of its supporters felt betrayed by Yamina’s decision to lead a government including an Islamist Arab party, Ra’am, and several left-wing political partners.

The Bennett and Lapid-led coalition was ultimately felled by ideological issues, bookmarked by the defection of Yamina lawmakers Idit Silman, who kicked off the crisis in April, and Nir Orbach, who was the straw that broke the camel’s back in June. Along the way, Arab lawmakers from Ra’am and the left-wing Meretz party broke coalition discipline to obstruct key security, Palestinian and West Bank-related regulation.

By saying that she won’t form a government reliant on Arab lawmakers to reach a 61-voting seat majority, Shaked echoes statements this week from Hendel’s former political partner, Gideon Sa’ar.

The new Zionist Spirit party has yet to announce its full slate of lawmakers, but the press conference did not feature Yamina’s Matan Kahana. A source close to Kahana said his membership is still up for debate, but that he might take the third spot on the Religious Spirit list, or align with Blue and White-New Hope.

Hendel is a former Netanyahu spokesperson, who has since been politically peripatetic, serving as a lawmaker for Blue and White, Derech Eretz, and New Hope, before uniting with Shaked.

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