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Reporter's notebook'Ben Gvir wants what the majority of the country wants'

Furious at Bennett’s betrayal, these national religious voters won’t allow a repeat

After backing Yamina in 2021, Givat Shmuel residents feel burned that their votes were used to oust Netanyahu; many plan to hold their noses and vote for Likud or Religious Zionism

Jacob Magid

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Givat Shmuel on February 10, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)
Givat Shmuel on February 10, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

GIVAT SHMUEL — In the Tel Aviv suburb of Givat Shmuel, Naftali Bennett’s Yamina party received more votes in last year’s election than any other faction.

Yamina offered a practical political home for many residents of the town of 30,000, known for its large and active national religious population — one that is decidedly right-wing, but not necessarily comfortable with some of the more extremist elements that have gained prominence within the community over the past several years.

The seven seats the party won proved critical, handing the diverse bloc of parties opposed to Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu enough to form a government in June 2021. Having long been allied with right-wing and religious parties, Bennett agreed to shift blocs to become prime minister in a gamble he hoped would bring an end to the cycle of election campaigns that have plagued the country since 2018.

But the coalition only survived for a single year, and its dissolution led to the downfall of Yamina, whose lawmakers have dispersed in various directions. One of them was Matan Kahana, a member of the national religious camp who advanced reforms as religious affairs minister that were popular among mainstream and liberal members of that community.

Recognizing the critical role of those voters sometimes referred to as the “soft right,” Defense Minister Benny Gantz recruited Kahana to his newly remodeled National Unity party in August, which combined the centrist Blue and White with Gideon Sa’ar’s right-wing New Hope.

With the erasure of Yamina from the political map and the shift even further rightward of the Religious Zionism-Otzma Yehudit alliance — and its far-right leaders Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir — it was reasonable to hope that national religious voters in towns like Givat Shmuel would be attracted to National Unity.

Matan Kahana (front left) along with other National Unity party members at a campaign event in Tel Aviv on September 6, 2022. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

But residents of the middle-class town told The Times of Israel Wednesday that they were not moved by the gesture.

“Just because Bennett decided to betray his voters and partner with the left doesn’t mean that we are going to do the same,” said Gali Rubin as she made her way home from the grocery store. “We might not be thrilled with the options he’s left us, but I personally plan on holding my nose and voting for either Smotrich or Likud. Most of my friends here tell me that they’re going to do the same.”

Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid, Yamina’s Naftali Bennett and Ra’am’s Mansour Abbas agree to form a coalition, to be joined by five other parties, on June 2, 2021 (Courtesy of Ra’am)

Fighting over kosher scraps

Bar Ilan University political science professor Asher Cohen said Rubin’s feelings were consistent with his own observations. “It’s true that there are many undecided national religious voters, but the vast majority are deciding within the bloc,” he said, meaning parties that are committed to Netanyahu.

Stressing that national religious voters are overwhelmingly right-wing, Cohen added that “those who think that if they open the ballot box that they’ll find lots of Gantz voters because Matan Kahana is there — it will not happen.”

The BGU professor pointed to recent polling that has placed the Netanyahu-led bloc of right-wing, religious parties at around 60 seats — roughly the same number it had before Bennett pulled Yamina into the anti-Netanyahu bloc to form a narrow coalition.

Right-wing protesters outside the home of Yamina MK Ayelet Shaked in Tel Aviv on May 30, 2021. The sign with a picture of Shaked and Yamina leader Naftali Bennett reads ‘Lapid’s collaborators’ (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

“Yamina voters have decided to bite the bullet and return home, whether it’s by voting for Netanyahu or Smotrich,” said Cohen, who has written extensively on the national religious camp.

He acknowledged that a very small number of national religious voters might indeed be willing to follow Kahana into the National Unity party’s arms, but insisted that they amounted to well under a seat’s worth in the Knesset.

Israel Democracy Institute researcher Ariel Finkelstein agreed that the number of voters willing to switch blocs is small, but argued that they could still prove critical given how elections have been decided by the tiniest of margins.

“Gantz understood this, and he brought Matan Kahana in order to peel voters away toward his party,” Finkelstein said.

If polls are to be trusted, however, the move has done little to move the needle. National Unity is polling at around 12 seats — the same number that Gantz’s original Blue and White party and Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope party had in total before they decided to join forces.

Finkelstein surmised that Gantz has failed to attract large numbers of national religious voters because he is still associated with the center-left. After all, he led that bloc of anti-Netanyahu parties just two elections ago, and he is once again campaigning on his refusal to partner with the Likud leader.

Benny Gantz speaks at the launch of the National Unity party campaign for the upcoming elections in Tel Aviv, September 6, 2022.(Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Warming up to Ben Gvir

The lack of excitement for any one party was noticeable in Givat Shmuel, where barely any campaign signs or stickers could be found, despite the election being less than a week away.

“People are tired of elections everywhere, but especially here after the politicians disappointed us so deeply last time,” said Shifra Rappaport, a former Yamina voter.

Speaking while walking to a Talmud class at the neighborhood synagogue, the head-covered pensioner said she was still consulting with her children regarding whom to vote for this time.

“To tell you the truth, part of me doesn’t want to vote at all,” Rappaport noted, before acknowledging that she would likely back Religious Zionism.

The town seemed relatively quiet on Wednesday evening. Malls were barely filled and most of the action appeared to be taking place in the dozen or so synagogues where male worshipers spilled outside after finishing the evening service.

One of those quorum members was Yossi Shmuel, who has lived in Givat Shmuel for more than 20 years.

Givat Shmuel on February 10, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

He acknowledged that voting for a party like Religious Zionism may have been difficult for residents in the past. However, the combination of what he viewed as Bennett’s “betrayal,” along with the positions staked out by Ben Gvir, “who is much more moderate today than he was 25 years ago,” make the decision a lot easier for Givat Shmuel locals.

Ben Gvir “wants what the majority of the country wants: the death penalty for terrorists, courts that will be slightly more in favor of people and the land of Israel…, [and] the expulsion of all terrorists to Syria or to whatever Arab country will take them,” Shmuel said.

Dana Abekasis said she had no problem counting herself among Religious Zionism’s supporters, saying she had backed the party in the past as well.

“I know people here who voted for Yamina but after what happened last time, everyone realizes that we need to stay [within the bloc] in order to maintain Israel as a Jewish state,” she said while finishing up dinner with her young son at a pizzeria.

After she surmised that a majority of Givat Shmuel residents would be voting for Religious Zionism, a man sitting one table over chimed in, “Ben Gvir’s the s**t, bro.”

Abekasis admitted to also having an affinity for Gantz, but said she couldn’t support him because of the left-wing parties he was willing to align with.

MK Itamar Ben Gvir seen during a plenum session in the assembly hall of the Israeli parliament, in Jerusalem on June 20, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“With him, [the religious Zionists] would be outside the government,” Abekasis lamented. “We won’t have a lot of power, and buses will be allowed to run on the Sabbath.

“I’m not a fanatic, but I want to preserve the Jewish nature of the country for my son,” she added.

While he disqualifies Religious Zionism for its far-right positions, Gantz insists that he will be able to form a broad coalition that will include ultra-Orthodox parties. The latter would likely never allow changes to the status quo on issues of religion and state. But the two Haredi parties have ruled out sitting under Gantz.

Elephant in the room

Of course, there does exist a more moderate alternative for national religious voters uncomfortable with voting for Smotrich and Ben Gvir’s party, but almost none of the Givat Shmuel residents who spoke with The Times of Israel made mention of it: The Jewish Home party is back on the ballot this election after being folded into Yamina for the previous three elections. The party’s No. 2, Yossi Brodny, even serves as Givat Shmuel’s mayor.

But that too did not appear to make much of an impression on residents, who were turned off by party leader Ayelet Shaked. The former Yamina No. 2 has paid dearly for her decision to join Bennett in his short-lived government, in which she still serves as interior minister, and Jewish Home has polled consistently under the electoral threshold.

Bar Ilan University’s Cohen said Shaked shouldn’t rely on national religious voters to make it into the Knesset. “We’re talking about the population that has been most battered by the threshold,” he argued, citing the failed run of the Tehiya party in 1992 — which helped enable then-Labor chairman Yitzhak Rabin to become prime minister and launch the Oslo process — along with Bennett and Shaked’s botched New Right party, which was fewer than 1,500 votes on the wrong side of the electoral threshold in 2019.

Ayelet Shaked (center) and Yossi Brodny (R) at a Jewish Home campaign event in Givat Shmuel on September 20, 2022. (Flash90)

“Therefore, it’s the sector that is most careful when it comes to the threshold,” Cohen said.

He argued that Shaked’s credibility problem went beyond her decision to join the previous government after vowing not to sit with several of its parties during the election campaign.

“Just two months ago, she hung up signs throughout the country that read we will not give Bibi the 61st seat,” he noted.

Those signs belonged to the short-lived Zionist Spirit party, which Shaked launched over the summer with New Hope lawmaker Yoaz Hendel. The two indicated a willingness to sit with Netanyahu at the time, though not in a narrow right-wing government.

After the party failed to take off, Shaked split with Hendel and returned to Jewish Home, taking on a new message.

“Now, she’s saying, ‘I will be Bibi’s 61st seat,'” Cohen said. “Some of the old signs haven’t even been taken down yet!”

Zionist Spirit leaders Yoaz Hendel (left) and Ayelet Shaked hold a press conference in Ramat Gan on August 21, 2022. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Indeed, a Zionist Spirit sticker could be found on a bench across the street from the pizzeria, albeit largely scratched off.

Givat Shmuel’s Gali Rubin noted: “It’s funny, because Bennett and Shaked refused to partner with Ben Gvir last time, but what they ended up doing has led their supporters to do exactly that.”

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