Yamina set to split as Bennett, Smotrich fail to bridge differences

As poll shows religious right-wing party would gain 2 seats if it dropped Smotrich’s National Union, the 2 constituent factions prepare to launch separate campaigns

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

The religious right-wing Yamina party looked set to split after a meeting Tuesday night between its leader Naftali Bennett and No. 2 Bezalel Smotrich yielded a shouting match rather than agreements on the terms for another joint run.

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 Bennett’s declared run for prime minister. Smotrich leads the far more conservative National Union, which opposes what it views as New Right’s compromises on matters that are key to religious Zionist voters.

A poll published Tuesday by Channel 12 indicated that Smotrich’s faction could be an electoral liability for Bennett, with Yamina predicted to get 14 seats in the event of a joint run and 16 if it runs without National Union, taking one seat each from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud and Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope. National Union, if it ran alone, would fail to enter the Knesset with 2.3 percent of the votes, below the 3.25% electoral threshold.

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.

Jerusalem Minister Rafi Peretz at the Knesset in Jerusalem, October 21, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

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 Tuesday. The leading candidate to succeed him, Nir Orbach, is closer to Bennett than to Smotrich and is expected to get the eighth slot on his slate.

Smotrich has been demanding four slots for his faction in the top 10 of Yamina’s electoral slate, while Bennett is refusing to give more than two.

“Smotrich is worth one and a half seats,” a source close to Bennett told Zman Yisrael, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew-language sister site. “How come they want four seats? They’ll chase away all our voters. We must bring votes from the center and marginalize Smotrich, his image and his opinions.”

Meanwhile, a source close to Smotrich told Zman Yisrael that he hoped Bennett wouldn’t “repeat his mistake.”

“Our voters right now are shaky and scattering away in all directions, which is why Bennett is looking for a common denominator and talking only about the economy. It indicates distress. Two [separate] parties would be a disaster. The cost last time was that to this day there is no right-wing government,” the source said.

Each faction is now set to launch its own, separate campaign while continuing to call on each other to run together.

Smotrich will rebrand National Union as the Religious Zionism party and has already decided on slogans and sent campaign ads to media outlets. He is also looking to recruit prominent officials to join his party, Channel 12 news reported.

Meanwhile, Bennett’s faction — which won’t be able to keep calling itself Yamina if Smotrich splits — is looking to expand its campaign beyond attacking Netanyahu’s government over its handling of the pandemic, the Kan public broadcaster reported.

Blue and White party chief Benny Gantz is considering joining his faction with Yamina to form an alliance for the March elections, according to a Channel 12 report Monday that was denied by Blue and White.

Gantz’s centrist party has been hemorrhaging member lawmakers ever since the Knesset dissolved and new elections were called near the end of last month. A recent poll predicted the party would not even muster enough votes in the election to enter the Knesset.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz visits the Atlit naval base in northern Israel on January 5, 2021. (Screen capture)

There are 78 days to go until the March 23 elections, and just a month until parties must finalize their tickets for the vote.

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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