Netanyahu’s final campaign focus: An effort to decimate Bennett and Shaked

Hoping to boost Likud and defeat his family’s long-time nemeses, PM is concentrating on wooing New Right voters, including with the promise of sovereignty over settlements

Shalom Yerushalmi

Shalom Yerushalmi is the political analyst for Zman Israel, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew current affairs website

Education Minister Nafatli Bennett (R) and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked announce the establishment of the New Right (HaYamin HeHadash) party at a press conference in Tel Aviv on December 29, 2018 (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)
Education Minister Nafatli Bennett (R) and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked announce the establishment of the New Right (HaYamin HeHadash) party at a press conference in Tel Aviv on December 29, 2018 (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

On Saturday night, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu surprised many by promising to extend Israeli sovereignty to West Bank settlements, should he get reelected in Tuesday’s general elections.

This new campaign angle did not come up as spontaneously as it seemed and had a clear objective: to siphon voters from Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked’s New Right, and send the duo’s fledgling party below the electoral threshold.

Likud’s internal polls show the New Right currently with just about five mandates. Netanyahu would like to see it fall below the required threshold of 3.25% —  four seats. For Netanyahu, extracting those mandates from Bennett and Shaked specifically would help him attain three goals:

First, Netanyahu doesn’t want to meet President Reuven Rivlin for the customary post-vote sit-down at a mathematical disadvantage; he would much rather arrive with a Likud party bigger than Benny Gantz’s Blue and White. With polls showing Gantz currently leading by an average of two seats, the demise of the New Right would remake that equation.

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

Second, there is no greater wish in the Netanyahu household than to see Bennett and Shaked out of the picture. The strained relationship between the two sides has been widely reported: Bennett and Shaked both worked for Netanyahu over a decade ago, but became his bitter political rivals after both left his employ due to their acrimonious relationship with Sara Netanyahu. Anyone who has heard Sara talk about the New Right leaders knows just how deep is the loathing.

Third, Netanyahu is convinced this is a one-time opportunity for him to get rid of internal opposition within his hoped-for coalition. Last November, Bennett gave Netanyahu an ultimatum, demanding the role of defense minister following Avigdor Liberman’s resignation. Bennett eventually backtracked, but the event left Netanyahu convinced Bennett could not be trusted in the long term as a loyal coalition partner.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, speaks with Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked in the Knesset, December 21, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

By Netanyahu’s calculation, he can afford to lose one right-wing party to the electoral threshold and still maintain a large enough right-wing bloc to secure his premiership. With one party dispensable, it might as well be the New Right.

Throughout his election campaign, Netanyahu has been tending to his relationship with the Union of Right-Wing Parties, an alliance he himself initiated and brokered. The prime minister has also avoided sparring with Moshe Kahlon and Kulanu — “we have a no-combat understanding,” say Netayahu’s people; and he isn’t campaigning against Avigdor Liberman or any of the religious parties (despite some claims to the contrary by Shas’s Arye Deri).

Netanyahu’s weekend interviews focused primarily on the national-religious newspapers, including one interview to Shvi’i, a newspaper distributed among religious-nationalist synagogues — Bennett’s base territory.

The final couple of campaign days will see Netanyahu focused heavily on obliterating the New Right. He is working closely with his strategists, frequently running polls. Still, he is taking a heavy risk with this strategy: Netanyahu may end up removing Bennett only to find himself at the mercy of yet another nemesis: Moshe Feiglin, the unpredictable head of the Zehut party.

Bennett, in the meantime, should contemplate how he ended up in such a situation. After many remarkable achievements in Israeli politics, he could find himself looking for a new career by the end of the week.

Shaked and Bennett set up the New Right party because they wanted to attract secular right-wing voters, but their political startup is now in danger. The public discourse has focused almost solely on Netanyahu and Gantz — much more than the New Right leaders initially expected. Even the recent tensions in Gaza did not provide Bennett, who still covets the Defense Ministry, with the campaign’s center stage. Then came the threat from iconoclastic but staunchly ultranationalist Feiglin, which Bennett really underestimated until it was too late.

This all leaves Bennett in the battle of his political life on three fronts — against Netanyahu, against Feiglin, and against his jilted partners in the Union of Right-Wing Parties, Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir. They all want to see Bennett lose.

If the New Right wins more than five seats on Tuesday, Bennett should count his blessings. If it doesn’t clear the threshold, or even if it barely squeaks through, this may well spell the end of Bennett’s ascension to power.

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