‘We have no home’: Undecided former Yamina voters wait for least worst option

Party refugees have the potential to tip election outcome, but many are waiting to see party slates to decide – likely skewing political polls

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Demonstration placards piled outside of Yamina lawmaker Ayelet Shaked's Tel Aviv home, protesting against the big tent government her party was set to form, June 6, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Demonstration placards piled outside of Yamina lawmaker Ayelet Shaked's Tel Aviv home, protesting against the big tent government her party was set to form, June 6, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Yosef Spiezer recently made a decision. The Jerusalem city council member and tour guide held the 14th spot on the Yamina party’s 2021 Knesset candidate list, but recently decided to run in the Religious Zionism party’s primary.

After turning against Yamina because he felt the government it formed in 2021 with broad-base political partners “was built upon conflicts of interests,” Spiezer took his time.

Although he’s now found clarity, he recognizes that many of Yamina’s former voters might tell pollsters that they’re allying with right-wing stalwart Likud, or with Religious Zionism, and some with centrist Blue and White, but many don’t yet feel “at home.”

“Right now, they’re looking for a new home to be in. They don’t have one,” Spiezer said, echoing a sentiment expressed by several former Yamina activists and voters interviewed by The Times of Israel.

This indecision is relevant because Yamina refugees, who in 2021 gave the party seven Knesset seats, have the potential to turn the tide of the upcoming November 1 election. Their turn to Likud or Religious Zionism could bring Benjamin Netanyahu across the 61-seat finish line. If they vote for Yamina’s newly launched successor party Zionist Spirit, their influence will depend on whether it manages to pass the electoral threshold and, if it does, whether it joins a narrow Netanyahu-led government.

Some of its voters may be so disillusioned that a portion will sit out the next election, which could also have significant consequences.

Jerusalem City Councilmember Yosef Spiezer (Reuven Kopitchinski)

The stakes

Last year Naftali Bennett, then leader of Yamina, formed Israel’s most diverse coalition ever, compromising on his party’s right-wing, pro-settler and pro-religious character agenda in order to ally with parties from the right, center and left, along with an Arab Islamist faction. In the process, he lost most of his party’s base, carefully constructed over more than a decade of championing right-wing, Zionist, and territorially maximalist causes.

While a chunk of Bennett’s voters fled over the past year, many Yamina refugees have not yet replaced their loyalties, instead waiting to see how candidate slates and platforms shake out before pledging allegiance.

In an election where a single seat could be incredibly consequential, Yamina’s seven seats’ worth of voters in the last election are critical. The future of those votes remains murky, and polls are likely skewed by this fact.

National religious political expert Asher Cohen, an associate professor at Bar Ilan University, noted that many pollsters don’t record undecided voters.

“What’s most interesting is that about 20 percent of national religious [voters] say ‘I don’t know,’” Cohen said, adding that “they’re waiting.”

Asher Cohen, associate professor of political studies at Bar Ilan University (Itai Schremer)

Since Bennett announced his departure and the party was taken over by Ayelet Shaked, Yamina has been polling at some two seats — not enough to enter the Knesset.

Zionist Spirit sources say they hope the unified campaign launch can reattract voters and bump them back up over the electoral threshold.

A poll conducted for Channel 12 news and published Thursday night showed Zionist Spirit squeaking into the Knesset with four seats, though survey data following a major announcement can often be skewed by media coverage.

Israeli TV polls have historically been of questionable reliability, but nevertheless indicate trends and often steer the decision-making of politicians.

Religious Zionism, meanwhile, continues to negotiate between party leader Bezalel Smotrich and firebrand lawmaker Itamar Ben Gvir, who wants his Otzma Yehudit faction to have a larger representation in their combined Knesset slate. Likud continues to make campaign plays for soft right voters terrified by the prospect of a progressive-led government that relies upon Arab politicians, and Blue and White’s union with New Hope is trying to position itself as a Netanyahu alternative that can court ultra-Orthodox parties in a coalition under Gantz’s leadership.

All these players will be courting former Yamina voters to try and get the upper hand come November 1.

A political vacuum

Yamina filled a spot that’s now a vacuum on the right. A spinoff of Bennett’s previous resuscitation of the Jewish Home party – under whose banner he previously ran with Smotrich – Yamina represented moderate, more religiously liberal streams of national religious Israelis who also wanted a vision for the state’s governance and its diplomacy. It also attracted some secular rightists, exemplified by the party’s current leader, Tel Aviv-based Shaked.

“I got to Bennett from a very ideological place,” said Assaf Fassy, who joined Bennett’s original Jewish Home campaign in 2013 and supported him until the 2018 break from Jewish Home. “I really loved that there was a right-wing person who had diplomatic and state-level vision.”

The ideology Fassy referenced includes supporting Israel’s Jewish character and sovereignty over Judea and Samaria – the Biblical term for land in today’s West Bank – and certainly not aligning with the progressive left or partnering with Islamist Arab parties like coalition member Ra’am.

Assaf Fassy (Courtesy)

By joining with those in the current coalition, Fassy said, Bennett lost right-wing ideological voter support. Among his community in the West Bank settlement of Otniel, Fassy said: “I don’t know one ideologue who has stayed with him.”

Today, Fassy, a settler who defines himself as religiously moderate, doesn’t know who he’ll vote for, also saying that he doesn’t have a political “home.”

While Yamina violated right-wing ideology, Cohen said a “big border” remains between people who identified with Bennett and those who do with Smotrich, and that not every Yamina voter will feel comfortable going with Religious Zionism.

Cohen defines three sections of the national religious vote: the center, the hard right and the soft right. In all, Cohen estimates that national religious voters constitute 14-18 seats across all parties, though he notes it is likely closer to the lower number.

Cohen said the centrist section of Yamina’s base likely migrated to Benny Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party, while the hard right moved to Religious Zionism.

“The issue is at the center, the religiously moderate but right wing. They have problems with the left as well as with Smotrich. They can see themselves with Likud. Their governance vision is right wing, but are religiously more liberal,” he explained.

Then-Yamina party head Naftali Bennett gives a press conference at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, June 6, 2021. Photo by (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“That’s the missing piece – [the national religious] always had a more moderate religious party. There is nothing in that place right now,” Cohen said.

There is also nothing to represent those in Yamina’s base who are against Netanyahu’s return to power.

Issues with Netanyahu

Though some of Yamina’s former electorate can see themselves with Likud, Cohen said a swath of Yamina voters struggle with that choice.

The upcoming November election is Israel’s fifth since 2019, and like its predecessors, is framed in part as a referendum on whether or not to give Netanyahu the prime minister’s chair. The Likud leader is a powerful but polarizing figure — consistently Israel’s most popular politician, but also on trial for corruption, he has amassed a slew of political allies turned rivals.

About a quarter of Yamina’s 2021 voters were secular. Some of those are in the anti-Netanyahu camp and have migrated towards Gantz. However, some of its religious base is also thought to be wary.

While leading a belligerent opposition, Netanyahu torpedoed the government’s ability to pass a legislative extension necessary to continue the application of Israeli law to West Bank settlers. The failure was one of the catalysts for crashing the coalition, but also a deep betrayal to right-wing, West Bank-based voters whose lifestyles were being threatened with legal and practical chaos in a game of political football.

Then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a statement to the media at the Knesset in Jerusalem, December 22, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

R., a politically engaged resident of West Bank settlement Gush Etzion who requested to withhold her name for privacy, said that the failure to pass the West Bank legal extension was a deep “wound.”

“That is a wound that I don’t know how much Bibi realizes [the extent of],” R. said, using Netanyahu’s nickname. “People out in my part of the world are not going to forget so fast,” she added.

Geula Twersky, a former Likud voter from Nave Daniel who voted Yamina in the last few elections, was less sanguine. Explaining why she left Likud in the last cycle of four elections stretching from 2019 to 2021, she said: “I feel like he,” Netanyahu, “is corrupt and it’s a corrupt party.”

Looking to the Religious Zionism primary

No political bloc is currently decisively polling to achieve a 61-seat minimum majority in November, but until Thursday evening, polls didn’t factor in the newly launched Zionist Spirit. And in general, they don’t account for undecided voters.

If Zionist Spirit can crack the code to bring back a portion of Yamina’s voters, it could find itself in a potentially decisive role between the blocs. Upon its launch, the new faction toed a non-committal line, saying it would push for a “unity government” including both Likud and the center-left.

In recent weeks, support tied to far-right firebrand Ben Gvir has shot Religious Zionism’s polling up from its six Knesset seats to 10. If Ben Gvir were to lead the party, polls indicate it could get as high as 13.

But Cohen said he believes some voters tell pollsters they’ll vote for Ben Gvir as an expression of dissatisfaction, rather than a clear intent. The polling bump associated with the MK may not stick, and less-than-loyal voters could yet be swayed away.

Some Yamina refugees say that Religious Zionism is an obvious next step, but not necessarily a wanted one.

“If I end up having to vote for Ben Gvir and Smotrich, I’ll do it holding my nose,” said R., adding that she would do so because at the moment, they are the best alternative.

MK Itamar Ben Gvir of the far right Otzma Yehudit party tours the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on July 22, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“It would be a vote not to support Religious Zionism, but a vote to support Zionism and religion,” she said.

Similarly, Fassy said that “it’s true that today Religious Zionism marks the closest option…but it’s not the dream.

“They’re missing a liberal part…Bennett found a hole in the right. There are a lot of people who connected to what he presented. The embarrassment is what he did, not what he presented,” said Fassy.

Cohen said that liberal right-wing voters “have a really big problem” with the hardline religious Smotrich and far-right Ben Gvir.

“Smotrich gets this,” he added, “that’s why he’s trying to build a more moderate list.”

A source inside Religious Zionism confirmed that the party opened its slate up for primaries for the first time in order to create a more varied offering and attract precisely those voters who feel some affinity with the party, but don’t see themselves fully represented by it.

“It’s true that there is a percentage that wants a softer right and it needs to get a place on our list through the primaries, and if necessary, with a [guaranteed spot],” said the source. “That was part of the decision to open the ranks.”

With candidates like Spiezer and others who will register for the August 23 primary before its August 2 deadline, Religious Zionism hopes to grab the bulk of Yamina voters.

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, right, and Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel at a state memorial ceremony for former prime minister Yitzhak Shamir, at Mount Herzl Cemetery in Jerusalem, July 10, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

But can Zionist Spirit tempt them back? List-leading Shaked is followed by former Netanyahu-spokesman turned anti-Netanyahu politician Yoaz Hendel, and the third spot will be reserved for a yet-to-commit Matan Kahana or another national religious figure. Hendel brings along fellow conservative lawmaker Zvi Hauser, and Shaked maintains Abir Kara, Yomtob Kalfon and Shirly Pinto.

Before Wednesday’s launch, a Yamina source optimistically said people like knowing who is on the slate and what the campaign is about before committing.

“I don’t think things are solid yet,” Twersky said, adding she may vote for Shaked if it seems likely she’ll pass the electoral threshold, as she did not want to throw away her vote.

But for now Twersky, and many other former Yamina voters, will wait to decide.

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