Escaping Netanyahu’s shadow, Yamina treks to opposition in search of power
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Analysis

Escaping Netanyahu’s shadow, Yamina treks to opposition in search of power

A new and coherent opposition coalesces on Netanyahu’s right as he enters into a unity government with centrist Blue and White

Haviv Rettig Gur

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Illustrative: From left to right: Yamina party members Naftali Bennett, Ayelet Shaked, Bezalel Smotrich and Rafi Peretz at an event in the Elkana settlement on August 21, 2019. (Ben Dori/Flash90)
Illustrative: From left to right: Yamina party members Naftali Bennett, Ayelet Shaked, Bezalel Smotrich and Rafi Peretz at an event in the Elkana settlement on August 21, 2019. (Ben Dori/Flash90)

Assuming no last-minute delays or crises, Israel’s 35th government will be sworn in on Sunday afternoon, and for the first time in their political careers, Naftali Bennett, Ayelet Shaked and Bezalel Smotrich will find themselves in the Knesset opposition.

The three Knesset members are part of the Yamina party, an alliance of two right-wing factions, New Right and National Union. It’s a small faction, numbering just five seats in total.

(It was six until Thursday, when Rafi Peretz, the lone representative of the Jewish Home party in the Yamina alliance, jumped ship to become the minister for Jerusalem affairs in the new government.)

Yamina’s unprecedented decision to abandon Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc — formed after the second round of elections last year — and head to the opposition has been brewing for weeks.

It has many causes.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset, April 30, 2020 (screen capture via Knesset website)

‘Seat-ology’

The party has faced criticism from Likud for abandoning the pro-Netanyahu bloc “not out of ideology but out of seat-ology,” as a party statement quipped last week. The “seats” in question are the ones surrounding the cabinet table.

There was no grand principle behind Yamina’s turn to the opposition, Likud argued. Party leader Bennett simply needed more ministries than his small faction rightly deserved. The party’s slim showing in the March 2 election meant it could not possibly obtain enough cabinet posts to satisfy the aspirations of all its leaders.

And indeed, some Yamina officials will readily admit that a stint in the opposition is seen by many in the party as preferable to the intense bitterness and recriminations that may result from some members finding themselves shunted aside in the new government.

Yet Yamina has a far better reason to seek the opposition, and is gearing up to take full advantage of the opportunity: It plans to use the moment to finally step out of Netanyahu’s long shadow.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Defense Minister Naftali Bennett (2nd L) visit an army base on the Golan Heights overlooking Syrian territory, on November 24, 2019. (Atef Safadi/Pool/AFP)

Lost ground

Even if one includes the single-seat Jewish Home faction, the Yamina alliance of religious-right parties is, in the grand scheme of things, a failure. Winning just six seats on March 2, or 5 percent of the Knesset, Yamina claims to represent a broad cross-section of the “religious-Zionist” camp in Israeli society, which researchers Shmuel Rosner and Camil Fuchs in their recent book “#IsraeliJudaism” put at some 20% of the Israeli Jewish population.

That’s a very large gap, which suggests both that Yamina has enormous potential for electoral growth and that it has failed miserably to make its case even to the vast majority of its own presumptive community.

On Thursday, Peretz, a rabbi, former Air Force pilot and (until his foray into politics in February of last year) widely respected leader in the religious-Zionist community, abandoned Yamina for Netanyahu. Both Peretz and Netanyahu have gushed about how important it is that “religious Zionism is represented” in the new government.

“It’s inconceivable that religious Zionism won’t be in this government, which will apply sovereignty in Judea and Samaria, the land and the inheritance of our forefathers,” Peretz wrote in a Facebook post last week.

Religious-Zionist educational institutions could close during the post-coronavirus economic crisis, he warned. Who will be there to rescue them at the government table, he demanded.

Education Minister Rafi Peretz speaks during a press conference at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on March 12, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Yet for all his claims to represent religious Zionism, it’s not even clear that Peretz can make a convincing case that he represents his own shrunken Jewish Home faction.

His coalition agreement with Netanyahu, one Jewish Home local branch chair was quoted as telling Channel 12 news last week, “includes no mention” of major policies and institutions that are of vital interest to the community, such as the state-run national service and religious volunteerism programs.

Peretz’s “biggest achievement,” the official said, “was selling Jewish Home to the coalition in exchange for covering millions of shekels in debts. You know what they call that in other places.”

The party’s “municipal forum” even called on the party on Thursday to move up the primary for party leader so those opposed to Peretz’s move could vote him out of office.

Yamina’s Smotrich gave his own glib reply to Peretz’s abrupt flip on Thursday, tweeting a picture of a key to a Mitsubishi car. There was no caption, but no right-wing Israeli needed one. In 1993, Likud MK Alex Goldfarb, who opposed the Oslo peace accords signed that year, agreed to switch sides and support the agreement in exchange for an appointment as a deputy minister. One perk of the appointment: a government-issued Mitsubishi car, which became Israeli political shorthand for selling one’s principles for honorifics.

And while Peretz faced excoriation from former allies and even officials in his own party, he could find no solace from his new Likud partners, who were hard at work last week building their own campaign to the religious-Zionist community.

As part of his ministerial appointments, Netanyahu is reportedly piecing together a cabinet portfolio built for that one purpose: to appeal to religious-Zionist voters, to show them he loves them. The ministry will include responsibility for the Settlements Division, which handles most of the housing planning for West Bank settlements, as well as non-military national service programs where religious-Zionist women make up the bulk of enlistees. The leading candidate for the post: outgoing Diaspora Affairs Minister Tzipi Hotovely, who also happens to identify with the religious-Zionist camp.

So who represents the religious right? Is it the party that can claim the support of perhaps one-quarter of the community’s voters? Or the single-seat faction vowing to represent its interests at the cabinet table? Or the ruling party trying its mightiest to show it cares?

Pressure points

Yamina knows one thing for sure: It can do better. In 2013, at the head of a similar alliance dubbed “Jewish Home,” Naftali Bennett won 12 seats at the ballot box. In 2020 he won six. The party believes its natural constituency constitutes 20% of the population and delivered 10% of parliament just eight years ago. That means it has enormous potential for growth — if it can distinguish itself from Likud ideologically and politically.

Yet Yamina’s new opposition strategy is based on more than competing with Netanyahu for perhaps six seats’ worth of religious-Zionist voters. It wants to set the narrative of the new government and to help define Netanyahu’s legacy.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud lawaker Tzipi Hotovely (L) at a Knesset faction meeting on December 5, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Netanyahu is locked into a unity government that surrenders much of the right’s defining agenda to his centrist partners. Yamina’s major campaign promises — from judicial reform to a more aggressive Israeli posture toward Gaza to free-market economic policies — have to a large extent been handed over to the Blue and White-led bloc headed by Benny Gantz, which will control the defense, justice and economy ministries in the new government.

That reality has frustrated and worried many in Yamina for many weeks, as when one party official told the pro-Netanyahu Israel Hayom daily as early as seven weeks ago, on March 30, just four days into the Likud-Blue and White unity talks: “If Netanyahu forms a left-wing government [i.e., one in which Gantz controls key policies], we will try to topple him from the opposition.”

Yamina’s three leaders, Bennett, Shaked and Smotrich, all share a trait sorely lacking in Peretz: they are media-savvy and successful political agitators who rose to political prominence through activist groups (My Israel and Regavim) that they created.

To such a triumvirate, opposition means freedom. Former high-tech executive Bennett and secular Tel Aviv native Shaked are as comfortable in the boardrooms of Tel Aviv skyscrapers as in any settlement. Smotrich, a former head of a right-wing advocacy group dealing with land and settlement issues, can fill in any gaps over the Green Line or among the more conservative elements of the religious-Zionist community.

And they will now have nothing else to do but travel the country lambasting and embarrassing Netanyahu at every turn.

Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich arrives at a voting station in the West Bank settlement of Kedumim on March 2, 2020. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)

They know as well as Netanyahu that there is plenty of fertile ground on which to sow the seeds of discontent. Netanyahu is supported by the religious right at the ballot box, but he isn’t necessarily liked or trusted by the community. Over the years, the prime minister has promised many things to the settlement movement that forms Yamina’s base, but delivered on few of them. That history looms large over the relationship.

Thus one finds on the Srugim website, one of the major news and opinion outlets for the religious-Zionist community, a clock displayed prominently on its homepage that counts the days, hours, minutes and seconds since Netanyahu promised settlement leaders he would “very soon” demolish the Khan al-Ahmar Bedouin hamlet east of Jerusalem, an issue that has become a litmus test of his trustworthiness among settlement leaders.

On the day his new government will be sworn in sans Yamina, that clock will read over 545 days since that promise was made.

Last month, as Netanyahu touted the inclusion of his annexation proposal in the coalition agreement with Blue and White, the heads of three West Bank regional councils, Samaria, Binyamin and Jordan Valley, fervently urged the prime minister to seal the unity deal with Gantz so he could begin delivering on that promise. They feared — and still fear — that any delay, including one caused by another election, could push off an annexation until the window of American support closes.

Now, as Yamina heads to the opposition, Israel National News, one of the most prominent media outlets of the settlement movement, urged those very same settlement leaders to leave Likud and join Yamina’s bid to forge a confident, strident right-wing opposition.

Samaria regional council head Yossi Dagan speaks during a ceremony at the Barkan industrial zone in the West Bank on October 7, 2019. (Flash90)

“To put it mildly, if we put aside for the moment all the declarations and compliments, standing steadfastly by Likud hasn’t always delivered for the settlements, certainly not from Netanyahu,” the site’s May 13 editorial argues.

A more independent Yamina, backed publicly by the influential heads of the major Israeli regional councils in the West Bank, would be able to force concessions out of a Likud-led government that unconditional support for Netanyahu never could.

Likud has lambasted Yamina for abandoning a government about to take the “historic step” of extending Israeli sovereignty over part of the West Bank.

But Yamina’s leaders believe such an annexation is more likely to take place if it questions Netanyahu’s right-wing bona fides from the opposition benches and highlights the prime minister’s ideological missteps than if it offers blind support. Elections are always just around the corner in Israel — and a belligerent oppositionist Yamina will force Netanyahu to spend much of his term leaning rightward.

Yamina in the opposition, they hold, increases the chances of an annexation, and increases its scope.

Netanyahu broke up three alliances in a month, pundits gushed after Peretz fled Yamina on Thursday. Those were Blue and White, which broke apart when Netanyahu and Gantz launched unity talks on March 26; Labor-Gesher-Meretz twice, once when Gesher’s Orly Levy-Abekasis abandoned her left-wing allies to join the coalition and the second time when two of Labor’s three MKs joined the coalition while the third, Merav Michaeli, stayed out; and Yamina with the departure of Peretz.

But Netanyahu’s alliance has also broken up, and he now faces a scrappy and pugnacious challenger on his right-wing flank that is determined to up the costs for any compromise or delay.

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