Two Israeli politicians, Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett, announced yesterday that they will leave the party they have led for the past six years and form a new party, called Hayamin Hehadash (The New Right).
Recent polls say Shaked, who is Justice Minister in the present Likud-led coalition, is by far the most popular minister (Hebrew link) in the government, while Bennett, the Education Minister, comes in second.
Shaked and Bennett were formerly members of PM Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, but joined with what was then called the National Religious Party to create the Beit Hayehudi (Jewish Home). The idea was to build a party that would appeal to both secular and religious Israelis on the right side of the spectrum: those who favor Jewish settlement in the territories, oppose a Palestinian state, and are hawkish on security issues.
They didn’t succeed. Although in 2013 Jewish Home got a respectable 12 seats in the Knesset, it dropped to only 8 in 2015. Bennett and Shaked did not succeed in broadening their base in the secular community, and it became clear that they would never have a chance to lead a government as representatives of a purely “religious” party. And as a small minority in Netanyahu’s government, they felt that they had little or no influence on its decisions.
Israeli coalition politics are more complicated than they may look, because a party has to get 3.25% of the vote in order to get into the Knesset at all (if they receive less, the votes may be distributed according to preexisting agreements, or they may simply be lost). There are always parties on the extreme right and left, as well as special-interest parties, which do not pass the threshold.
Ayelet Shaked has distinguished herself as Justice Minister, by working to reduce the extreme left-wing bias of the legal establishment, especially the Supreme Court. Israel does not have a constitution. It does have a series of Basic Laws, one of which deals with the judiciary system. However, the Basic Laws are broad, and interpreted according to legal precedent, often established by the Supreme Court; and I and many others believe the Court has taken for itself far more power than is healthy in a democracy. Naftali Bennett has been very critical of PM Netanyahu on security matters, calling for stronger measures against the rocket and arson attacks from Gaza. He also criticized the government’s failure to deal with the threat from Hamas’ cross-border tunnels prior to the 2014 war.
They will certainly draw votes from those who previously voted for Jewish Home, but their main source of support will have to be from Likud voters. There are some who simply dislike Netanyahu for various reasons but see no reasonable alternative. Some lean right, and would vote for a party to the right of the Likud, but have not wanted to vote for an explicitly religious party. Personally I like the idea of a party that is firmly right-wing on security matters and which can walk the sometimes fine line between respect for Jewish tradition and religious coercion.
Until now Netanyahu’s poll numbers have been solid, but he faces a concerted media and legal campaign against him. He is accused of corruption on four separate matters (which, in my opinion, are either picayune or politics as usual). The police and state prosecutor have recommended that he be indicted on three of them, and the decision is in the hands of Israel’s Attorney General, Avichai Mandelblit. Every time Netanyahu or his wife is interrogated by the police, the subject matter of the interrogation is leaked to the media, which gleefully reports it. There are demonstrations in front of the home of the Attorney General, calling on him to indict Netanyahu, and a demonstrator even followed Mandelblit to a synagogue where he was saying Kaddish for his mother.
The PM says that even if he is indicted, he will not resign, and that the law does not require him to. On the other hand, there is no doubt that if it happens, his opponents will challenge his right to keep his job in court. It is impossible to predict exactly what will happen, but the idea that somehow Netanyahu could be knocked out, leaving an opening for the Left to come in, is frightening for the majority of Israelis – who believe that the Left is not only incompetent but positively dangerous.
Some who are critical of the decision of Bennett and Shaked to start a new party raise the specter of 1992. In 1992, a very close election ended up with a coalition of the Left in power, after several small right-wing parties did not make the cut to enter the Knesset (at that time, the cutoff was 1.5% of the vote). Both the technical issue of the cutoff and the political problems caused by dissention on the Right led to Rabin’s left-wing coalition and the Oslo accords – a disaster from which the nation has yet to recover.
Netanyahu effectively used the fear of another 1992 to convince voters in the last election (2015) to vote for the Likud rather than Jewish Home, despite the fact that Bennett promised to support Netanyahu in coalition negotiations, and despite surplus vote sharing arrangements that keep votes for marginal parties from being lost. Regardless, a unified Right is more likely to succeed than a fragmented one, and I know several people who voted for Netanyahu while preferring Bennett in their hearts.
Where Bennett and Shaked’s new party could change the equation is if it can draw voters from the center – from parties like Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu, or the new centrist parties started by Orly Levy-Abekasis or former chiefs of staff Benny Gantz and Moshe Ya’alon.
The constellation of parties is still fluid, and I’m sure the pollsters are feverishly trying out all of the combinations. My dream is a strong coalition, firmly on the right on matters of security, but without the Haredi (“ultra-Orthodox”) parties. Although it is true that around 12% of Israelis identify as Haredim and certainly deserve a voice in governance, in my opinion the Haredi parties have proven to be excessively narrowly focused on immediate benefits for their constituents, and too ready to sacrifice the good of the nation for those interests. The recent struggle over national service for Haredim is an example.
But at this point nothing is certain, except that on April 9, I and my fellow citizens will go to the polling place (it’s an official holiday), show our national ID card, and place a pre-printed paper ballot in a box. Humans will count the ballots. There won’t be any chads, hanging or otherwise. And in 2015, about 76.1% of voting-age Israelis voted in national elections.
It could be better, but compared to the US, where turnout was only 55.7% in the hard-fought 2016 contest, that’s not bad at all.