The political partnership between Zionist Spirit party leader Ayelet Shaked and Yoaz Hendel reached its end early Sunday, with the politicians trading accusations and both indicating they intend to lead the party, which is not expected to make it into the next Knesset.
The moderate right-wing party’s implosion comes a month and a half after Shaked and Hendel formed their alliance, just five days before the deadline for submitting parties’ electoral slates, and hours after they were still vehemently denying having significant differences.
The crucial disagreement between Shaked, currently the interior minister, and Hendel, the communications minister, is on one of the most central issues of the November vote — whether to back a potential narrow right-wing government headed by the popular but polarizing opposition chief Benjamin Netanyahu.
In the aftermath of the last election, Shaked’s previous party, Yamina, refused to commit to backing Netanyahu or an alternative government, allowing party leader Naftali Bennett to parlay his kingmaker position into a sweetheart deal that made him premier for a year, despite heading one of the Knesset’s smallest parties. Bennett has now taken a break from politics.
While both Shaked and Hendel played a critical part in forming last year’s ideologically diverse government that ousted Netanyahu after 12 straight years in power, Shaked is willing to join a narrow Netanyahu government — which would include far-right extremist Itamar Ben Gvir — while Hendel and MK Zvi Hauser oppose such a move and say they will only support a broad unity government.
Early Sunday morning, Hebrew media reported that Hendel had written to his activists in a closed WhatsApp group that after sitting down twice with Shaked over the weekend, he concluded that he “cannot accept the possibility that Zionist Spirit will award [Netanyahu] a narrow government,” and that Shaked “is not with me on this matter.”
Hendel wrote that he intended “to lead Zionist Spirit as the only party representing the normal right wing,” an apparent challenge to Shaked’s leadership of the party. He said he wasn’t sure Shaked would run in the election, and that any such bid would see her try to join the Jewish Home party, which is also expected not to make it into the Knesset.
In a later Facebook post, Hendel repeated that he would lead Zionist Spirit into the elections, saying that there was a “gap that could not be bridged” with Shaked.
“In my eyes, a narrow government of Bibi [Netanyahu] and Ben Gvir, or the center-left and the Joint List, is a disaster,” Hendel wrote.
Shaked has been widely reported in recent days to be holding negotiations with Jewish Home, which similarly is willing to join a narrow Netanyahu government.
She had denied the reports, and Hendel also denied having major differences with Shaked in a Saturday evening interview with Channel 12 news.
A short while after Hendel’s remarks about ending the alliance were reported in the press, Shaked’s office issued a statement saying she was the one who decided to end the partnership, accusing Hendel of having asked her to wait with the official announcement — only to leak the news to the media ahead of her.
“After many conversations, Shaked decided to break away from Yoaz Hendel and Zvi Hauser, and informed Hendel of that on Saturday evening,” the statement released in her name said.
“However, she respected his request to delay the joint announcement until Sunday afternoon, when he is due to land in New York. Hendel chose, in an unstately and undignified way, to violate the agreement and act in a manner that doesn’t respect any of the sides,” the statement read.
Confirming that she is willing to enter a narrow Netanyahu government, Shaked said: “Hendel and Hauser clarified that if a unity government isn’t formed, they will prefer to drag the country to another election over forming a right-wing government. That option is inconceivable.”
Shaked implied she would nevertheless keep leading Zionist Spirit and would present her electoral slate in the coming days.
“Shaked is not ready to drag the State of Israel into further elections and in the event that she fails to establish a unity government, she will strive to establish a balanced right-wing government in which Zionist Spirit will play a responsible role,” the statement read.
Shaked was set to meet later Sunday with former Yamina MK Abir Kara, who last week launched his own party, and ex-Yamina MK Nir Orbach, who broke with the coalition, helping to bring down the government.
The latest election poll published Saturday showed that with 52 days until Israel’s next election, Netanyahu remains just shy of the majority he needs to return to power, and political deadlock persists.
Zionist Spirit continued to lose support, polling at 1.1 percent, far below the 3.25% needed to enter the Knesset.
Israeli TV polls are often too small to accurately predict election results, with margins of error large enough to sway as many as five seats, but they can offer a general overview of public opinion and often influence jockeying between politicians.