Analysis Eyeing End of Netanyahu Era, Bennett and Shaked Are Ditching the Settlers

Israel's Minister of Education Naftali Bennett (R) and Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked (L) during a press conference in Tel Aviv on December 29, 2018.
JACK GUEZ / AFP

AnalysisEyeing End of Netanyahu Era, Bennett and Shaked Are Ditching the Settlers 

At Saturday’s press conference announcing a new party, Bennett took his revenge on the religious Zionist community that twice betrayed him by voting for Netanyahu

Even before Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked kept their promise to jointly lead their New Right (Hayamin Hehadash) party, they proved they can successfully sing a duet. They didn’t let the lone heckler in the audience that came to hear them announce their divorce from Habayit Hayehudi disturb them; each sang their part, like gifted middle-schoolers. They are stage partners, not just political partners.

Six years after conquering Habayit Hayehudi virtually unopposed and asserting “something new begins,” they’re again rebooting themselves and their political careers. One hundred days before the election, they are throwing two monkeys off their collective backs: the archaic institutions that Habayit Hayehudi inherited from its predecessor, the National Religious Party, and the ultra-Orthodox Zionists who forced them to ally with extremist, messianic, racist, benighted homophobes like MKs Bezalel Smotrich and Moti Yogev, and to a lesser extent Eli Ben-Dahan and Nissan Slomiansky.

At their press conference Saturday night, Bennett took his revenge on the religious Zionist community that twice betrayed him by voting for Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party. “The prime minister understood that the wonderful religious Zionists are in his pocket; however much he abuses them, they’ll stick with him,” Bennett said.

Wonderful, but stupid and easily manipulated, according to Bennett. He blamed those “wonderful” people from the West Bank hilltops for the fact that almost two months ago he and Shaked had to withdraw their threat to resign from the cabinet after Netanyahu’s “prelude to war” speech.

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They may well have decided to leave that very night, when rabbis and settler activists pleaded with them not to quit, because war would soon break out. In effect, Bennett told the settlers Saturday night: “It’s not us, it’s you.”

Shaked and Bennett aspire to conquer the top portfolios — defense, finance and/or foreign affairs — and then ascend to the summit. They concluded, logically enough, that the embarrassments caused by Smotrich and Yogev would condemn them to be a niche party forever.

It’s a brave but very dangerous gamble for the entire pot. With Habayit Hayehudi, they had at least seven or eight guaranteed Knesset seats, and 12 or 13 in the polls. That power base got them two senior portfolios, education and justice, last time. Nobody can promise they’ll do as well this time.

Their working assumption is correct: Only with an all-Israel party could they fulfill their aspirations. Such a party could merge with Likud in the post-Netanyahu era. Today, that option is closed, due to the primeval hatred Netanyahu and his wife bear them.

Bennett and Shaked understand, as many people do, that the Netanyahu era is nearing its end. Netanyahu may be re-elected, but his fate will be decided by the attorney general or the High Court of Justice. They want to be ready for a merger, nimble and free of excess baggage.

In the upcoming election, six parties will vie for the right’s votes: Likud; Habayit Hayehudi, which will apparently fall into Smotrich’s hands; Orli Levi-Abekasis’ new Gesher party; Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu; Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu and the New Right. In the 100 days remaining, can the latter consolidate serious political power among right-wing voters and attack the other parties from behind? That’s what Bennett and Shaked are counting on. Once again, something new begins.

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