Burned by religious Zionist old guard, Bennett seeks a new kind of right-winger

Leaving Jewish Home, Netanyahu’s former aides Bennett and Shaked hope to challenge the PM by reaching new audiences, particularly those who won’t abandon them under pressure

Raoul Wootliff

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett taking selfies with students at Bleich High School in the central Israeli city of Ramat Gan, Feb. 12, 2015. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Education Minister Naftali Bennett taking selfies with students at Bleich High School in the central Israeli city of Ramat Gan, Feb. 12, 2015. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Announcing that they would be leaving the Jewish Home party to forge a “true partnership between secular and religious,” Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked on Saturday lamented they had lost their influence over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and claimed they needed a new political platform to have a real impact.

Since first taking control of Jewish Home in 2012, Bennett has always pitched himself as the right-wing force keeping a flaky Netanyahu from drifting leftward. “We need a strong Jewish Home to keep the government on the right path,” he argued during both the 2013 and 2015 election campaigns.

Using their Saturday announcement of the “HaYamin HeHadash” (“The New Right”) party to slam the premier for a series of recent policy decisions they denounced as having “strayed from the path of the right,” Bennett and Shaked appeared for the first time to be making a bid to replace him — or at least to run an election campaign that directly challenges him.

Netanyahu’s legal woes seem to be closing in and many legal analysts predict that even if he wins the next election — as current polls show he will — the prime minister could be forced to step down within a year of the April vote. With the rumblings of that potential earthquake already beginning to shake the political scene, Bennett is clearly keen to make the case for himself as the next prime minister.

Education Minister Nafatli Bennett (R) and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked announce the establishment of HaYamin HeHadash party at a press conference in Tel Aviv on December 29, 2018. (Jack Guez AFP)

The problem for Bennett, as he made clear in his Saturday statement, is the Jewish Home party. While he and Shaked have tried for the past six years to modernize the now-moribund National Religious Party, he realizes that in order to mount a real challenge to the current right-wing hegemony of the Likud, he must reach new voters. Previous attempts by the two to have Jewish Home shed its religious image have been met with only middling success.

Bennett and Shaked both began their political careers as senior aides to Netanyahu when he was head of the opposition in 2006, but abruptly left Likud in 2008 amid rumors of disagreements with the Netanyahu family. Their move to Jewish Home, engineered in part by the recently departed Avichai Ronsky, a settler leader and the former chief rabbi of the IDF, was based on the idea that the religious right needed to be reinvigorated and that this must include cooperation with Israelis who are not Orthodox.

This approach also sidelined the last vestiges of the old National Religious Party in favor of a more energetic version even less beholden to democratic rule and willing to toy publicly with explosive ideas — like backing vast judicial reform and pushing an aggressive plan to annex settlement blocs.

Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett electrifies supporters at Kfar Hamaccabiah on January 22 (photo credit: Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)
Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett electrifies supporters at Kfar Hamaccabiah on January 22, 2013. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

They initially succeeded in reaching new audiences, boosting the party from just three seats to an impressive 12 in the 2013 elections. While they were on the path to a similar result in the 2015 elections, however, Netanyahu’s warnings about the dangers of a Zionist Union victory led voters to flock to Likud, leaving the Jewish Home with just eight seats.

Woven into Bennett’s statement Saturday night was an indictment of the religious Zionist community for failing to give him its full support, instead repeatedly turning back to Netanyahu when he demanded.

Lamenting that the party had “lost its great influence” over Netanyahu, Bennett appeared not so much to accuse the prime minister of turning leftward, as to blame his own voters for not allowing him to pressure the premier.

In the most recent example of this behavior, Bennett said his November ultimatum to Netanyahu to be made defense minister following Avigdor Liberman’s resignation was made hollow when he lost the support of religious Zionist leaders.

At the time, Bennett’s demand appeared to be a bold statement that without more influence and clout over Netanyahu, he simply could no longer continue to lend his support to a premier who had, of late, betrayed the right with a slew of decisions that he believed had weakened Israel’s security. “It’s either the Defense Ministry or we are out. This is our ultimatum to stay in the government,” party officials said then.

But after days of belligerent statements promising to “make Israel win again,” Bennett was forced to humiliatingly walk back his threat. Religious leaders who form the backbone of Jewish Home had proven receptive to Netanyahu’s argument that due to Israel’s sensitive security situation it would be irresponsible to go to early elections.

Netanyahu, Bennett said Saturday, sent his emissaries to the heads of religious Zionism to bring that message home. “He did everything to persuade the religious Zionist community, this good community… And they stood silent. We were forced to fold.” Bennett said.

And yet five weeks later, Netanyahu reversed his position, and early elections were called. “The prime minister understood that the religious Zionists are in his pocket,” Bennett claimed.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement in Tel Aviv, November 18, 2018, saying he will take over temporarily as defense minister, as early elections loom. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Bennett and Shaked now say they are seeking to build a party which would achieve what Jewish Home couldn’t — “true partnership between secular and religious [Israelis].”

To make an impact, they will certainly need to find new voters, those previously unreachable due to their view of Jewish Home as representative of old religious Zionist sectarianism.

But to really challenge Netanyahu, Bennett and Shaked appear to believe they also need to shed old voters who have held them back.

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