Smotrich confirms he’ll split from Yamina and field independent run

Right-wing union that ran together in previous election now looks set to launch separate slates, with Bennett looking to expand party’s appeal

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Naftali Bennett (R) and Bezalel Smotrich of the right-wing Yamina party hold a press conference in Jerusalem on May 14, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Naftali Bennett (R) and Bezalel Smotrich of the right-wing Yamina party hold a press conference in Jerusalem on May 14, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The right-wing Yamina party confirmed Monday night that it will split ahead of the upcoming March elections, with National Union chair Bezalel Smotrich pulling his faction out of the union to run on his own.

“We are going our separate ways,” Smotrich told Channel 12 news.

He said that Yamina head Naftali Bennett was focused on the economy, while he was set on “uniting religious Zionism, and chiefly to be the ideological right-wing voice in the Knesset.”

Yamina responded to the comments, saying, “Smotrich has decided to split up the right. We wish him luck.”

Smotrich’s announcement came after a week of failed negotiations with Bennett over the continuation of their partnership. Smotrich had been demanding four slots for his faction in the top 10 of Yamina’s electoral slate, while Bennett refused to give him more than two.

Bennett leads the New Right faction within the party, which is relatively liberal on church and state matters, and is looking to expand the party’s appeal beyond religious voters, as part of his declared run for prime minister. Smotrich’s National Union — which will now be called Religious Zionism — is more conservative, opposing what it views as New Right’s compromises on matters that are important to religious voters.

Yamina leaders (left to right) Transportation Minister Betzalel Smotrich, Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, former justice minister Ayelet Shaked and then education minister Rafi Peretz, at the party’s election-night headquarters in Ramat Gan, on March 2, 2020. (Flash90)

A poll published by Radio 103FM on Monday gave the rebranded Religious Zionism, running on its own, four seats. Yamina, without Smotrich, was predicted to be the second largest party in the Knesset, gaining 17 seats in total.

However, opinion polls had forecast a similar result ahead of the April 2019 election, when New Right ran alone and National Union ran together with the Jewish Home party. New Right ended up failing to enter the Knesset by a margin of some 1,400 votes, while the more conservative alliance won five seats.

Jewish Home has since joined forces with Likud, but is thought to be seeking to reunite with Yamina or with National Union ahead of the March election. Its current leader and only Knesset member, Rafi Peretz, quit politics last week. The leading candidate to succeed him, Nir Orbach, is closer to Bennett than to Smotrich and is expected to get the eighth slot on the Yamina slate.

New elections, the fourth since April 2019, were called last month, after the power-sharing government of Likud and Blue and White failed to agree on a budget by a December 23 deadline.

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