Yamina was Israel’s ruling party on Thursday. Just a day later, it finds itself as a minor Knesset faction struggling to survive in a volatile political landscape.
In a dramatic announcement Wednesday night, Yamina leader and outgoing prime minister Naftali Bennett said he would not run in the upcoming elections and handed over the reins of the party to Ayelet Shaked, his longtime political partner.
But Yamina now finds itself in treacherous waters, at risk of fresh defections and with its new leader facing a raft of problems.
The party has struggled with defections since the coalition came together last June, with one of its newly elected Knesset members, Amichai Chickli, even voting against the government’s establishment.
In April, MK Idit Silman ditched the coalition too, citing her objection to the government’s policies on religion and state. She was followed weeks later by MK Nir Orbach, who after the failure to pass a bill reapplying Israeli law to West Bank settlers said he could no longer vote with the coalition.
Silman and Orbach are now almost certain to leave Yamina and appear likely to join opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud as a token for their roles in helping bring down Bennett’s power-sharing government with now-interim Prime Minister Yair Lapid.
As Chikli is unable to run with any faction in the next election after being branded a defector, Shaked’s Yamina appears to be left with just three MKs, not including Bennett: Matan Kahana, Shirley Pinto and Abir Kara.
Kahana, a Bennett loyalist, is opposed to sitting in a government led by Netanyahu, who he blames for Israel’s political instability over the past several years.
This stance puts him on a collision course with Shaked, who has long flirted with Likud and said last week that she would be willing to join a new government headed by Netanyahu without going to elections.
Kahana, who ran the religious services ministry as a minister and deputy minister in the outgoing government, is now thought likely to leave Yamina.
Sources close to Kahana said he has several options, including joining Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar’s right-wing New Hope party. Among New Hope’s members is communications minister Yoaz Hendel, with whom Kahana is close.
Another possibility would be for Kahana to join Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party. He could also launch his own faction, which could possibly include Hendel.
Under any of these scenarios, Kahana could enjoy a boost if he can persuade Yamina MKs Pinto and Kara to join him. If the three were to team up, they could formally split from Yamina and take the NIS 1.6 million (over $450,000) in election funds allocated to each MK to whichever party they decide to join or establish.
Under Israeli law, at least a third of a Knesset faction must split to be eligible for this money.
If any three MKs successfully split off from Yamina, it could allow those remaining to also break with the party and take the election funding with them as well.
It is therefore critical for Shaked to prevent Yamina’s break-up, as the loss of election funding would severely hobble the party’s coming election campaign.
However, Shaked seems to have few options for new political alliances. By forming a government with left-wing parties and the Islamist Ra’am faction, she burned bridges with her erstwhile allies in the far-right Religious Zionism party and likely has no chance of reuniting with them.
On Thursday, the Israel Hayom daily reported that Shaked was considering offering Hendel a place on the Yamina list, though this seemed unlikely due to the latter’s antipathy for Netanyahu.
According to the report, she likely will not rule out sitting with any political bloc during the campaign and will focus on concerns about the economy and the cost of living.
Shaked’s task of garnering enough votes to clear the electoral threshold is complicated by the fraught political position Yamina is now in.
By forming a government with parties across the political spectrum, Yamina alienated much of its right-wing voter base, which seems unlikely to give the party another shot in the next elections.
Voters in the anti-Netanyahu camp, which Yamina formed the last government with, will also be wary of Shaked’s stated willingness to sit in a coalition led by Netanyahu.
Yamina could therefore fall prey to the predations of rival parties on both sides of the political divide during what is sure to be a bitterly contested election.
Channel 12 reported Thursday night that Netanyahu is waiting for the results of an internal poll to determine whether or not Yamina will attract voters from the anti-Netanyahu bloc or if Shaked only draws support from the right.
If the latter is the case, Likud will likely seek to eviscerate Yamina. Netanyahu could offer Silman, Orbach and another Yamina MK reserved slots on Likud’s electoral slate and badly damage Shaked’s election war chest.
The Likud leader would also likely launch withering political attacks against Shaked, as he frequently and effectively did while Bennett was party leader.
Ensuring that Yamina remains above the electoral threshold in the face of what will surely be unrelenting attacks against Shaked and the party will now be the fight of her political life.
A Channel 12 survey on Wednesday night showed that a Yamina party led by Shaked would take five seats in the coming election, though it was conducted before Bennett’s announcement that he will not run in the upcoming vote. Israeli election polls also frequently prove inaccurate.
As The Times of Israel’s political correspondent, I spend my days in the Knesset trenches, speaking with politicians and advisers to understand their plans, goals and motivations.
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