National religious parties scramble after Bennett launches New Right campaign

National religious parties scramble after Bennett launches New Right campaign

Jewish Home, National Union and Otzma Yehudit weigh possibility of primaries as rejuvenated defense minister kicks off bid without waiting for longtime partner Shaked

Jacob Magid is the settlements correspondent for The Times of Israel.

(L-R) Ayelet Shaked, Naftali Bennett, Bezalel Smotrich and Rafi Peretz announcing a merger between religious right-wing parties, to be called United Right, July 29, 2019. (Courtesy)
(L-R) Ayelet Shaked, Naftali Bennett, Bezalel Smotrich and Rafi Peretz announcing a merger between religious right-wing parties, to be called United Right, July 29, 2019. (Courtesy)

The New Right party launched its election campaign on Monday, kicking off an independent bid and leaving the remaining national religious parties on their own to decide how best to compete in the upcoming March vote.

Naftali Bennett’s party said in a statement that it would be running under the slogan, “There’s pretend right, there’s sometimes right and there’s New Right — a secure right.”

The mantra apparently highlights Bennett’s new position as defense minister, which he assumed last month. Recent polls have indicated that the new credentials have contributed to an increase in his popularity, with New Right predicted to receive roughly seven seats.

Absent from the message announcing the roll-out of the campaign — which included a picture of a stern-looking Bennett next to the new slogan — was Ayelet Shaked.

Naftali Bennett’s New Right party March 2020 elections campaign rollout poster with the slogan, “there’s sort of right-wing, there’s sometimes right-wing and there’s New Right — a secure right-wing.” (New Right)

In the previous election, the popular former justice minister was head of the joint Yamina slate, which comprised Bennett’s New Right, Rafi Peretz’s Jewish Home and Bezalel Smotrich’s National Union.

Last year, Shaked joined Bennett in bolting the Jewish Home and starting the New Right to run in April 2019. The two referred to themselves as co-leaders of the fledgling faction, which highlighted their religious-secular partnership in addition to their shared right-wing positions. However, they failed to cross the electoral threshold in a humbling defeat for Bennett that brought his party to merge ahead of the next elections with the national religious factions it had deserted months earlier.

But polls suggest that the balance of power has shifted since then, and while Bennett has not ruled out joining forces with other influential politicians and parties, New Right is at the very least starting the latest election campaign on its own.

As for Shaked, her spokeswoman told The Times of Israel that the former minister is expected to decide whether to continue as Bennett’s deputy in the New Right in the coming days. She never actually left the party and agreed to give Bennett full charge of it as she led the broader Yamina alliance, which won seven seats in September.

Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked attend a press conference in Ramat Gan, July 21, 2019. (Photo: Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

One of the options being weighed by Shaked is participation in a new initiative to hold open primaries for a united national religious party.

The initiative is being pushed by officials both within and outside of the various national religious parties — Jewish Home, National Union and Otzma Yehudit. According to the national religious Srugim news site, Shaked and the National Union’s Smotrich discussed the possibility of open primaries in a meeting last week.

A Srugim poll released before the New Right declared its independent run showed that Shaked, Smotrich, Bennett and former National Union MK Orit Strock would win the first four slots, respectively, followed by former Jewish Home MK Eli Ben Dahan and Otzma Yehudit chairman Itamar Ben Gvir, leaving Jewish Home’s Peretz behind in the seventh slot.

Apparently sensing his lack of popularity among national religious voters, the Jewish Home chairman has come out against the idea of open primaries. “We consider the idea of primaries as worthy in principle, and we have even been the only ones in the religious Zionist camp who have been holding them for years, but at this moment it is a task that cannot be carried out because the New Right is not taking part and due to our concern for the face of our national religious party, which could change,” Jewish Home said in a statement.

Instead, the statement said it would be best to work toward a full-fledged merger with the National Union, as opposed to past technical agreements, under which the two parties ran on joint slates but remained separate entities despite sharing virtually identical views.

Union of Right Wing Parties candidates (from L-R) Rafi Peretz, Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich pose for a photo on April 9, 2019. (Courtesy)

Speaking to The Times of Israel, National Union general manager Yehoda Vald downplayed Jewish Home’s intention to work toward a full-blown merger with his faction, saying that Peretz’s party has pushed off such negotiations in recent weeks.

Moreover, Vald argued that the merging of the two parties could only be one step in a process and argued that the national religious public had a right to choose the united bloc’s leadership. “This could be through primaries or this could be through other creative ideas that we’d need to discuss,” Vald said, adding that he welcomed the New Right and Otzma Yehudit to be part of such a process.

Ahead of the previous election, Yamina held negotiations with Otzma Yehudit to join its national religious alliance; however, they fell apart at the last minute and the far-right slate, composed of disciples of the extremist late rabbi Meir Kahane, ran independently but failed to cross the electoral threshold.

In the year’s first election, Jewish Home and National Union agreed to run with Otzma Yehudit, and Ben Gvir was placed at No. 7 on the list. However, the joint slate only won five seats and the far-right activist was left out of the Knesset.

Ben Gvir on Monday called on his supporters to register as members of Otzma Yehudit “so that the party could properly prepare for primaries and ensure that its candidates will be represented high on the list.”

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