Taking the reins of the New Right party from Naftali Bennett on Sunday, Ayelet Shaked called on other factions in her political bloc to unite under her rule ahead of the upcoming elections in September.
“Mergers will be the insurance policy of the ideological right,” Shaked said at a Ramat Gan press conference announcing her leadership of the party in front of dozens of cheering supporters.
In April, the former justice minister ran as a co-chair of the New Right, but was still situated behind Bennett on the party’s slate, which failed to cross the electoral threshold by less than 1,500 votes. Now, at the helm of the party, she is looking to prevent another failure by joining up with other smaller right-wing factions.
“I call upon the heads of the ideological parties to the right of the Likud [to unite]. The differences between us are negligible in the face of the challenges that lie ahead,” Shaked said.
Speculation has swirled in recent months regarding the political future of the popular former justice minister. After the New Right’s electoral defeat, Shaked’s associates said she was set on joining the Likud party.
However, the possibility was reportedly shot down by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, who was largely rumored to have clashed with both Shaked and Bennett, while the latter two served as aides to the Likud leader from 2006 to 2008.
With a Likud run out of the realm of possibilities, Shaked held talks with Bennett as well as Union of Right-Wing Parties chairman Rafi Peretz in recent weeks, seeking to return to politics as the sole leader of a faction.
Until now, Peretz has resisted stepping aside for Shaked, despite recent polls that have indicated that the ex-justice minister would bring in more votes than the more novice education minister. Peretz has caused a couple of political storms in recent weeks, calling the intermarriage rate among US Jewry a “second Holocaust,” and saying that he had experience sending students to conversion therapy and believed the practice worked. He later walked back the comments and asserted that he utterly opposed the pseudo-scientific methods.
Nonetheless, Peretz has said that it would be inappropriate for a secular woman such as Shaked to be placed at the helm of his national religious party. The URWP leader has been backed up by a group of prominent rabbis in his camp, who have spoken out against the idea of a woman, either religious or secular, leading a political party.
Shaked addressed those reservations at the Sunday press conference: “In the upcoming election, there was no party led by a woman. Now there is,” she said to thunderous applause from her supporters.
As she made clear throughout the presser, Shaked has not given up on Peretz, but she also has found a more willing partner in Bennett, who was first to step aside.
Introducing Shaked in Ramat Gan, Bennett said, “After the elections, I took full responsibility for the results. I am doing this now.”
In addition to the URWP, Shaked will also be seeking to bring Otzma Yehudit as well as the Zehut party into her fold.
Otzma Yehudit praised the shift in the New Right in a statement issued shortly after Shaked’s presser, predicting that “there will soon be even bigger alliances to speak of.”
“In any case, it is clear that there is no disagreement in the political system today regarding one thing: Without Otzma Yehudit receiving the reserved spots on a united list that it deserves, we may, heaven forbid, wake up to a leftist government.”
Since the April elections, relations between Peretz and Otzma Yehudit have soured, with the latter announcing that they intend to run on their own come September. The slate of self-described disciples of the extremist rabbi Meir Kahane have claimed that the URWP chairman has not kept his end of their agreement, which required him to resign, along with No. 2 Bezalel Smotrich, after the two were named ministers, in order to allow far-right candidate Itamar Ben-Gvir be named an MK. For his part, Peretz has asserted that, with the dissolving of the Knesset in May, there was no opportunity to pass new legislation allowing more than one minister in the same party to resign and give his place up to someone lower down the list.
However, Ben-Gvir and Shaked have maintained a good rapport, meeting one-on-one several times in recent weeks. Shaked reportedly believes that if she is able to fold Otzma Yehudit into a slate under her rule by giving them more prominent positions than what they had in the April election, Peretz will have no choice but to join her united party as well.
As for Zehut, Shaked spoke for several minutes on Sunday evening about the importance of free-market economic policies, using rhetoric that highlighted “liberty” and “freedom,” which the libertarian party’s chairman Moshe Feiglin has championed in recent months and years.
While Netanyahu had advocated in favor of mergers between right-wing parties and had personally orchestrated the Jewish Home and National Union factions’ merger with Otzma Yehudit, a URWP official close to Peretz confirmed to The Times of Israel on Sunday that the premier has opposed a broader New Right-URWP alliance, and even called Peretz three times in the past day, urging him to reject Shaked outright.
The URWP official who spoke to The Times of Israel said Netanyahu opposes the possibility of a sole party to the right of Likud, as such an alliance would threaten to take away seats from the Likud and prevent the premier from leading the largest party.
The official speculated that Netanyahu may want to have the New Right run on its own in order to take votes away from Yisrael Beytenu. The two parties have pushed back in recent months against some of the more hard-line positions on issues of religion and state, but a New Right-URWP merger would likely shift focus away from the issue, leaving more space for Yisrael Beytenu to control the narrative. The party’s chairman, Avigdor Liberman, has been increasingly portrayed as a likely kingmaker in the upcoming elections, after refusing to join Netanyahu’s coalition, due to disagreements with the ultra-Orthodox parties.
Netanyahu is instead reportedly seeking to keep the New Right and URWP separate, as they were during the April vote. During his meeting with Peretz later this evening, the prime minister is expected to pressure Peretz into bringing back the far-right Otzma Yehudit faction into the fold, according to the associate.
For his part, Netanyahu asserted Sunday that he was not getting involved in the matter and even cancelled a meeting he had scheduled with Peretz in his office for later that night.