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January 1, 2019 8:12 am

Bennett Swings for the Fences

avatar by Mati Tuchfeld / JNS.org

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sits next to Education Minister Naftali Bennett during a Knesset session, March 12, 2018. Photo: Reuters / Ronen Zvulun / File.

JNS.org – Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked felt they were up against a glass ceiling. That the Habayit Hayehudi party, which had welcomed them to its ranks, made them its leaders, and injected them into Israeli public life could not take them any further.

Their move to create a new party frees them from the shackles of the religious Zionist movement and old-guard Hapoel Hamizrachi activists. But it also comes with great risk: No one knows at this stage how many mandates this type of party can win.

Their resignation is predicated on the assumption that there is a market for what they’re selling: a party of religious and secular representatives, categorically right-wing, for people who don’t want to vote Likud and are searching for a political home. Without their “New Right” party, these voters could have looked to Benny Gantz, Orly Levi, or maybe even Yair Lapid — who are suddenly all either center or right — and can now find refuge with Bennett. The big question is how many of these voters exist.

Bennett has never hidden his desire to eventually vie for the premiership. Despite these open intentions, he was persuaded that his first foray into the political waters had to be from Habayit Hayehudi; in Likud, his path to the top would be blocked as long as Benjamin Netanyahu was still party chairman.

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Now he has supposedly taken another step toward his dream. Habayit Hayehudi held him back. The activists, the rabbis, the nationalist haredim — they were never really on the same page. They did not support him when he tried welcoming former soccer star Eli Ohana into the party, nor when he issued an ultimatum for the defense portfolio after Avigdor Lieberman’s sudden resignation. Bennett felt it did not matter how many mandates Habayit Hayehudi won, his power would always be capped because the religious camp loves Netanyahu. And they would always stop him if they felt he was going too far.

From this perspective, Bennett felt Lieberman would always be stronger than him, even if Lieberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party had fewer mandates. Lieberman could make threats, join a coalition or leave it whenever he deemed fit.

For Bennett, on the other hand, Netanyahu could always tell the rabbis and activists to temper their responses. The nationalist religious public that votes for Habayit Hayehudi is principled and loyal, but also a bit of a sucker at times. Now Bennett has liberated himself from them. It is still far from certain it will pay off, but apparently he had to try.

The number of mandates at stake, however, is just part of the gamble. The second part will come after the elections. The new party will likely be at the bottom of the list of potential coalition partners if Netanyahu is tasked with forming the next government. The personal rivalry between Bennett and Netanyahu, and the barbs the two parties are expected to exchange during campaign season, could spur Netanyahu to prefer Gantz, Levi, and perhaps Lapid over Bennett and Shaked.

On the other hand, due to a possible indictment, Netanyahu’s main consideration for forming the next coalition will likely be stability. Bennett, therefore, could leapfrog other potential partners if he promises to remain in the coalition even if an indictment is issued — a promise that Gantz, Lapid, and even Moshe Kahlon are unlikely to give.

Mati Tuchfeld writes for Israel Hayom.

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