In a shock announcement, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, leader of the Jewish Home, and his colleague Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked on Saturday evening said they were quitting the party and instead setting up HaYamin HeHadash (“The New Right”), a party based on “full partnership” between Orthodox and secular Israelis, to run in April’s elections.
The two made the announcement at a press conference in Tel Aviv, saying that the Orthodox Bennett and the secular Shaked would serve as the co-leaders of the new party.
One of their abandoned Jewish Home MKs, Bezalel Smotrich, said the move was the beginning of a bid by the two to succeed Benjamin Netanyahu at the very top of the Israeli government. The pair do not believe they can ever win the leadership of Israel so long as they are associated with a religious party, said Smotrich, and the split was therefore “inevitable.”
Explaining the decision, the ministers said that while Jewish Home had become a “significant force” in government over the past six years, their power had waned, with Bennett saying Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu felt religious Zionists were “in his pocket.”
“In the past year and particularly in recent months that age of our great influence ended,” he said. He particularly attacked Netanyahu for stating only weeks ago that due to Israel’s sensitive security situation it would be irresponsible to go to early elections, sending his emissaries to the heads of religious Zionism and forcing Bennett and Shaked to nix their plan to resign from the government, only to call elections earlier this week.
“We were forced to fold and remain in the government despite what we believe,” Bennett said. “Four weeks later when the prime minister decided elections were good for him, he did it.” There was no longer any talk of “an emergency security situation,” charged Bennett, because the time was right for the cynical Netanyahu.
The two said they sought to build a party which would achieve what Jewish Home couldn’t — “true partnership between secular and religious [Israelis].”
HaYamin HeHadash, Shaked said, would be a “full and equal partnership” between the secular and the Orthodox.
“We’ll regain Knesset seats that have slipped from the Likud to the left — to parties that claim to be right wing but are in fact left,” she said. “The party will strengthen the right.”
“I want to be very very clear,” Bennett said. “The New Right party is right-wing, no buts and no sort-ofs. In favor of the Land of Israel without compromise, against a Palestinian state, period.”
Said Bennett: “If there had been a party like this 13 years ago, the disengagement [from the Gaza Strip] would not have happened.”
When Bennett declared that he had “great respect for the achievements” of Netanyahu, he was interrupted and heckled by a member of the audience, who protested that the Jewish Home had helped keep “a corrupt prime minister in power.” The heckler was not a journalist, but the former Shin Bet officer Gonen Ben Yitzhak, a bitter opponent of the prime minister’s, who interrupted the pair several times as they spoke.
Current Jewish Home MK Shuli Moalem-Refaeli will also be leaving the party to join Shaked and Bennett. Following the announcement, the three filed an official request to split from the Jewish Home, a move that would means the new party receives campaign funds for incumbent MKs from the Central Elections Committee. The Knesset House Committee will meet Sunday morning to debate the request.
Veteran Jewish Home MK Nissan Slomiansky said he had not been given advance information on the announcement.
Fellow Jewish Home MK Smotrich said the split was “inevitable,” wished the pair well, and said the rest of the Jewish Home leadership would convene to chart its path ahead. “They’ve always spoken of their desire to break away,” he said.
There have long been reports of clashes within Jewish Home between Bennett and Shaked and members of the Tkuma party which forms a part of Jewish Home — led by Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel and MK Smotrich.
Tkuma had reportedly issued a list of new demands of Jewish Home’s leaders regarding its prominence in the party in the run-up to the new elections. These may have contributed to Bennett and Shaked’s decision to split.
Speaking to Reshet Bet radio on Saturday night, Smotrich said that Bennett and Shaked apparently believe that they cannot lead the country so long as they are heading what a party so closely identified with the Orthodox right. They “seek national leadership, something that they feel they cannot obtain with a religious party,” he said.
According to Hadashot TV news, the decision was influenced by the pair’s long-standing conflict with the party’s institutions as well as their aversion to some of the more religiously conservative positions of some of its members.
A Jewish Home source told The Times of Israel that Bennett and Shaked believe most of the party’s voters would support their new electoral list.
Jewish Home was founded in 2008 as a continuation of an alliance between the National Religious Party and the National Union. Bennett became its leader in 2012 and was joined at the helm by Shaked.
Bennett was Netanyahu’s chief of staff between 2006-2008 when he was head of the opposition. Shaked was Netanyahu’s office manager at the time.
The pair’s move is part of a flurry of political activity in recent days after the announcement of new elections on April 9 of next year, with several new parties vying for votes.
Former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz formally entered politics Thursday with the registration of his new party, Israel Resilience, and is expected to court centrist voters. Ex- defense minister Moshe Ya’alon has discussed joining him. Polls have shown Gantz’s party potentially coming in second place behind Likud in the elections, with 13 seats.
MK Orly Levy-Abekasis, previously of Yisrael Beyetenu, is setting up a new party called Gesher, which is projected to win around six seats, according to recent polls.
Likud is still currently the clear favorite in the race, projected to win seats in the high twenties or low thirties; a united run by Gantz and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid could come close to that number, but Gantz is said disinclined to enter such an alliance.
For his part, Zionist Union leader Avi Gabbay on Saturday vowed he would be prime minister after April’s elections, despite polls forecasting his opposition faction losing over half the 24 seats it now holds.
“The coming elections are between me and Netanyahu… All the other contenders in politics say they will… sit in his government. I’ve come to bring major change to the country and I don’t believe it is possible to do this in a government headed by Netanyahu.”