Israel’s coming election may be decided on the religious right

Netanyahu has no coalition without Naftali Bennett. Neither does Gideon Sa’ar. The fight is on

Haviv Rettig Gur

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

Yamina leader Naftali Bennett at a protest against the state's intention to close the Hilla Project, outside the Knesset in Jerusalem on August 12, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Yamina leader Naftali Bennett at a protest against the state's intention to close the Hilla Project, outside the Knesset in Jerusalem on August 12, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The election campaign is now in its least interesting phase, and, arguably, its most important.

Sixty-four days out from election day, this is the point when parties disassemble and reassemble as Knesset hopefuls jockey for position in search of a political vehicle that might carry them into the parliament.

New parties are forming that have no chance of making it past the 3.25 percent vote threshold for entering the Knesset, but have a reasonable hope of being scooped up by larger parties interested in thinning the competition before the February 4 party registration deadline.

Former Yesh Atid MK Ofer Shelah’s Tnufa party is one of those, as is former state accountant-general Yaron Zelekha’s New Economic Party. Two-man faction Derech Eretz is made up of a duo that started off in Moshe Ya’alon’s Telem, which was then swallowed by Benny Gantz’s Blue and White, and now the pair have thrown in their lot with Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope. The list goes on and on.

Among the larger parties, the rumor mills are grinding furiously with merger speculations. Will Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party find new partners to boost its ballot-box showing? Will Ron Huldai’s The Israelis emerge as a frontrunner on the left by consuming the smaller left-wing fish in its path?

MK Ofer Shelah holds a press conference in Tel Aviv on December 24, 2020, announcing the establishment of a new party. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

It’s a game most voters are still steadfastly ignoring. None of this will really matter to any but the most devoted followers of the political scene until the party slates are finalized and formally registered next month. Few of the mergers currently under discussion are likely to meaningfully change the election results on March 23.

Except, that is, in one small section of the Israeli political map where the game of political mergers and acquisitions among otherwise small players may end up determining the final winner of the March race. It is there, on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right flank, where his political future may be decided.

The religious Zionists

There are three parties representing the religious right-wing camp that falls under the “religious Zionism” catch-all. Yamina, led by Naftali Bennett, is the most successful of these in polls. A January 11 poll for radio station 103 FM gave it 14 seats, reflecting its showing in most polls in recent weeks.

Then comes the National Union party led by Betzalel Smotrich, which will run on election day as the Religious Zionism Party. The same poll gave it four seats – edging past the electoral threshold for the first time, but only by the skin of its teeth. In most polls, it just fails to clear the threshold.

And finally, there’s Jewish Home, whose beleaguered leader Rafi Peretz has announced his retirement from politics, sparking a primary battle to replace him.

Yamina MK Bezalel Smotrich speaks during a Knesset plenum session in Jerusalem, August 24, 2020. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Pool/Flash90)

Jewish Home is the last vestige of the National Religious Party, which for many decades was the primary vehicle of religious-Zionist politics. At its height, it held 10% of parliament. In a January 8 poll for the Maariv newspaper, it got 0.3% of votes. Few other polls have bothered to ask.

Three parties, alike in dignity but not, it seems, in voter appeal. And that creates a serious problem for Netanyahu.

Netanyahu needs Bennett

It’s a question of simple arithmetic. The parties currently committed to backing Netanyahu for prime minister aren’t enough to get him to a 61-seat parliamentary majority.

Consider the polls. A January 8 poll for Channel 12, reflecting the general trend among pollsters in recent weeks, gave Likud 31 seats and its Haredi allies (at least for now) Shas and United Torah Judaism seven seats each. That’s just 45 seats, 16 short of the slimmest parliamentary majority needed to form a governing coalition.

The poll also gave Yamina 13 seats, bringing the number closer to victory, with 58. Close, but no cigar.

Israelis watch as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu receives a coronavirus vaccine at the Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, on December 19, 2020, becoming the first person in Israel to get the vaccine. Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, the second to be vaccinated, is alongside him. (Jack Guez/AFP)

Every poll tells much the same story. A week before that poll, on January 1, pollster Panels Politics gave that same Likud-Haredim-Yamina coalition 58 seats. A January 8 poll in Maariv gave that coalition 56. And on January 12, a Channel 12 poll gave it 57 seats.

The best showing yet was in Maariv’s Friday poll, which gave Likud 32 seats, Yamina 12, and Shas and UTJ eight apiece — for a total of 60. (The new Religious Zionism party didn’t pass the electoral threshold in the poll.)

The point is simple. Barring a surprising volte-face by parties now running on a commitment not to sit with Netanyahu, Netanyahu has no coalition without Yamina — and may not have one with it.

Bennett doesn’t need Netanyahu

Naftali Bennett, meanwhile, is often counted among the anti-Netanyahu parties because of the longstanding animus between the two men. He would welcome the chance to use his ballot-box winnings to show Netanyahu off the national stage, and the feeling is wholly mutual.

But there is a more tactically sound reason to view Bennett as a swing vote: Gideon Sa’ar will give him more.

Combo photo (from left): New Hope leader Gideon Sa’ar, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Yamina leader Naftali Bennett. (Flash90)

There is a center-right coalition developing — and so far holding steady in polls — that seeks to oust Netanyahu from power.

Roughly speaking, and with the caveat that the final makeup of parties actually running on March 23 isn’t finalized, that coalition looks something like this: Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope party, Bennett’s Yamina, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu, Benny Gantz’s Blue and White, and Ron Huldai’s The Israelis.

In a poll last Monday for 103 FM, that coalition wins exactly 60 seats. Two Channel 12 polls, on January 8 and 12, give it the same number.

Yamina could put Netanyahu within a stone’s throw of victory. It could also put Sa’ar there.

Netanyahu would have an easier coalition to manage, with a larger ruling party and fewer partners. But he’d have fewer outside forces willing to jump in to fill out his not-quite-majority coalition. Sa’ar would face the difficult task of herding several medium-sized and small parties. But he’d also be able to call on outsiders to stabilize his coalition, from Shas and UTJ (who won’t willingly go to the opposition if they can help it, no matter who is in power) to left-wing Meretz or some part of the constellation of Arab parties eager to see Netanyahu pushed from power.

MK Gideon Sa’ar meets with Haredi supporters after the release of exit poll results of the general election, at Likud party headquarters in Tel Aviv on March 2, 2020. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

And that’s where the differences between the two men may become decisive. Bennett could get more from Sa’ar, whose party won’t be all that much larger than his own, than from a 30-seat Netanyahu. Bennett will also have reason to trust Sa’ar to deliver on his promises in a way few in the political system now trust Netanyahu.

Netanyahu tries to weaken Bennett

Last week, Betzalel Smotrich announced he was leaving the Yamina party and taking his National Union faction to an independent run as the “Religious Zionism Party.”

It’s a move pushed by Netanyahu.

Bennett, as noted, would be pleased to see the end of Netanyahu’s political career. But Smotrich, who represents a more right-wing branch of the religious-Zionist world, the so-called “Haredi-nationalist,” or by its Hebrew acronym, “Hardal,” subculture, would not.

Smotrich views the option of a center-right coalition sans Netanyahu as distasteful, an unnecessary surrender of right-wing policy goals, which won’t advance in a government dependent on Yesh Atid, Gantz’s shrunken Blue and White, and so on. Smotrich’s social conservatism sits far more comfortably with Shas and UTJ than with Huldai’s The Israelis, which has already launched its campaign to the LGBT community with a promise to push for gay marriage.

Yamina’s Bezalel Smotrich (left) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (courtesy)

But Smotrich has repeatedly polled under the electoral threshold since announcing a separate run, including in a Friday Channel 12 poll.

Not to worry: Netanyahu has a plan.

In several actions over the past week, Netanyahu has shown how far he’s willing to go to weaken Bennett while securing for himself as much automatic support as he can before any negotiations begin.

It is Netanyahu, not Smotrich, who reportedly reached out last week to the extremist Otzma Yehudit party to see if it was willing to merge with National Union. It’s not for the first time Netanyahu has tried to unify Otzma Yehudit with other far-right parties to avoid their votes getting lost by a failure to pass the electoral threshold. But this time he’s gone farther than ever before.

According to a Channel 12 report on Sunday, Netanyahu offered Otzma Yehudit head Itamar Ben Gvir a promise of an outsized role in the next government if he agrees to the move, reportedly telling him that if Smotrich and Ben Gvir together win four seats, they’ll receive ministerial posts as though they were a party of eight.

Itamar Ben Gvir of the Otzma Yehudit party speaks during a ceremony in Jerusalem marking the 27th anniversary of the killing of extremist rabbi Meir Kahane, November 7, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Stirring the pot

Netanyahu has also worked hard to pull tiny, 0.3%-winning Jewish Home into Smotrich’s orbit, which would be both a symbolic victory and a practical one. It would offer Smotrich the legacy party’s infrastructure, from branch offices to activist lists to the public campaign funding it is due from its single MK in the outgoing Knesset.

Netanyahu is desperate to get Smotrich past the threshold. As his newfound devotion to winning over Arab voters demonstrates, every seat is now precious. He understands that he can’t offer anyone a rotation deal again after unceremoniously breaking his promises to Gantz. His chief opponents are no longer on the center or left but among longtime Likud faithful. He’s running out of tricks and he’s running out of options.

And so Jewish Home’s sleepy leadership race, set for Tuesday, has become a frantic battle between the prime minister and his nemesis, the Yamina leader who holds the key to his election victory.

With Rafi Peretz’s resignation earlier this month from the now-defunct Jewish Home, party CEO Nir Orbach announced his intention to run for leader. Orbach is very close to Bennett. He’s running on a platform of merging the party into Yamina, a classic merger-party move.

Jewish Home central committee members vote to approve a merger with the far-right Otzma Yehudit party on January 13, 2020 (Flash90)

That’s when frantic phone calls starting arriving some two weeks ago at the office of Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Hagit Moshe — from none other than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself. Netanyahu urged Moshe to run against Orbach.

According to the religious-Zionist news site Srugim, Netanyahu promised to appoint her a minister if he wins the premiership. “It’s not impossible that the two discussed the education portfolio,” was how Srugim described the offer.

Netanyahu’s only condition: Moshe would sign a merger agreement with Smotrich instead of Bennett. It’s a bigger gamble for Moshe, but Netanyahu’s promise offers the prospect of larger rewards.

Jewish Home Director General Nir Orbach at the campaign opening event for the Union of Right-Wing Parties list in Jerusalem, on March 11, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Netanyahu’s reasoning is sound. Every seat Smotrich pulls from Bennett is a seat guaranteed to Netanyahu. And a weakened Bennett can demand less as his price for joining a Sa’ar-led coalition.

Then, too, with the rightist edge of his Yamina slate gone to Smotrich, Bennett is more likely to draw centrist voters attracted to his economic and pandemic-policy critiques of the outgoing government — the sort of centrist voters now “parked” with Sa’ar. Any vote Netanyahu moves from Sa’ar, who has vowed not to sit with him, to Bennett, who merely prefers not to sit with him, is a victory too.

A bitter race lies ahead. Netanyahu has no clear path to a coalition without Bennett. Neither does Sa’ar.

But before they will ask him to make the choice, they will work furiously to siphon votes from him until the last possible second.

Taken together, the religious-Zionist factions are now polling better than they’ve ever polled before, turning Bennett into the election’s likely kingmaker. And everyone, from erstwhile ally Netanyahu to ideological fellow traveler Sa’ar, is working hard to change that.

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