Otzma Yehudit Chairman and then National Union MK Dr. Michael Ben-Ari in the Knesset (Image credit: Moshe Milner/Government Press Office of Israel)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has reportedly opined that Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked’s breakaway from Jewish Home was a “death blow” to the right, but the move actually shows signs of being the kiss of life for Israel’s long unrepresented ideological religious right-wing.
The sudden announcement by Ministers Bennett and Shaked that they were abandoning their party to form what some are calling a clone of Likud — their “New Right” party — was not without its foreshadowing. For years there has been a mismatch between Jewish Home’s outward trappings as the self-proclaimed representative of religious Zionism in the Knesset, and Bennett and Shaked’s non-religious approach and national plan to establish a “Palestinian state” in Judea and Samaria that would be a “confederation with Jordan.”
Now the two are free to pursue their political goals of challenging Netanyahu for the largely secular and liberal yet ostensibly right-leaning voter base, unencumbered by limitations of catering to religious Zionist voters. However, polls show their new party getting as few as 6 seats, seriously taking the wind out of their sails that until now were buoyed by the same religious Zionists who no longer have a reason to delude themselves into voting for them.
But the breakaway has a far more important ramification. Bennett’s new party will leave Jewish Home in tatters according to polls that predict it unable to pass the 3.25% electoral threshold, which was raised in 2014. Jewish Home and its National Union faction are both left embroiled in fights for leadership over who will take the reins.
Regardless of how the party restructures itself, Jewish Home will now apparently be forced to unite with the religious right-wing ideological parties it often maligned, if it hopes not to be relegated to irrelevancy.
MK Betzalel Smotrich of Jewish Home’s National Union faction has already spoken openly in favor of running together with former MK Eli Yishai and Otzma Yehudit. The framework for such a joint run was already tested in the last elections in 2015, when Yishai’s Yachad party and Otzma Yehudit ran together in a technical bloc. This technique allowed them to create a joint Knesset list and benefit from each other’s electoral base, while remaining separate and free to act independently after the elections. However, the technical bloc fell just short of the threshold by around 10,000 votes.
Yishai has indicated his willingness to join up with other like-minded parties, and Otzma Yehudit has openly been calling for a technical bloc. The party also just completed a crowdfunding campaign with serendipitous timing, successfully raising over 825,000 shekels in mere weeks and positioning itself to run a proper election campaign.
Rounding out the religious Zionist contenders is Zehut, the new party founded by former MK Moshe Feiglin after he left Likud. So far Feiglin has indicated a general unwillingness to join forces with other religious right-wing parties, when he ungraciously derided Otzma Yehudit for “humiliating themselves” by calling for him to join in a technical bloc with them.
While it remains unclear what direction Jewish Home will choose, whether agreement on a joint run between it, Yishai, and Otzma Yehudit can be reached, and where Feiglin fits into the entire picture, one thing is clear. The shakeup caused by Bennett and Shaked has left the parties aligned with religious Zionism in a state of flux — and ready to reassemble themselves in a unity that they have as yet been unable to achieve.
There is more reason to foresee the coming elections as a boon for the ideological right. The fluid state of affairs that Netanyahu termed a death blow to the right likely poses the most threat to his mainstream “right-wing” rule, which has implemented the policy of the left for a decade. This is because Netanyahu’s traditional coalition partners are emerging greatly weakened from the events according to polls, with Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu and Shas in danger of not passing the threshold, like Jewish Home.
All of this raises the chances that Netanyahu will need to yield to the demands of the ideological right-wing parties in order to form a coalition, or at least in order to advance legislation. It also makes it likely that Netanyahu will make good on his talk of lowering the threshold to ensure he has potential coalition partners, after previously considering a reduction down to 2.75%.
The jockeying and reshuffling going on in the Knesset indicates 2019 could be a huge opportunity for the ideological right-wing in Israel. This could be the year that voices advocating for Israel to build homes for its people and crush its enemies finally gain a national platform and initiate legislation to advance their vision.
After years of an ineffective “right-wing” leadership that has been busy maintaining status quo and unable to craft policy leading Israel in a new and better direction, this may be the opportunity for a new political discourse to emerge on center stage and have a permanent effect on the dialogue in Israel. The coming elections are shaping up to be a cause for great expectations indeed.