Israel election prompts plethora of new parties
Naftali Bennett is far from the first politician to cause a schism in his country’s right wing
ELBOW ROOM is in short supply ahead of Israel’s election on April 9, with the field looking increasingly crowded.
Barely a day has passed since the date was announced last week without a new party being founded or an existing one splitting in two.
Former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz is one of those expected to play a part in coalitionbuilding calculations after the election. His new party, Israel Resilience, is doing well in the polls — as is Gesher (Bridge), founded by Orly Levy-Abekasis, who was originally elected to the Knesset as a member of Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu but left two years ago.
Besides having name recognition, both leaders have been sufficiently vague with their policies to draw in supporters from a wide range of political positions.
New Year’s Day brought the abrupt end of the Zionist Union electoral alliance. Labour Party leader Avi Gabbay announced at a press conference that he was ending the partnership with Tzipi Livni, the former foreign minister, and her Hatnuah (The Movement) party. Ms Livni, who was sitting next to Mr Gabbay, had not been told in advance of the news. Her face, as Mr Gabbay announced the political divorce, was thunderous.
Relations between the two have been rocky since Mr Gabbay’s election as Labour leader two years ago and Zionist Union — which ran a close race in 2015, coming second with 24 seats — has plummeted to single-digit support in the polls.
Now Hatnuah and Ms Livni have to decide whether if they run alone they have a viable chance of winning any seats.
Three days earlier, the national-religious Jewish Home split. Two of its leaders, Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, departed to form The New Right, which will be open to religious and secular members. The remaining Jewish Home MKs now face both a leadership primary and the dilemma of whether to link up with controversial far-right groups to try and attract more
WHENEVER IT seems that no more splits are possible in Israeli politics, another one comes around.
On Saturday night, Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked shocked their own colleagues when they announced they were breaking with Jewish Home, the party where Mr Bennett won the leadership six years ago, to form a new “religious-secular” faction.
The new outfit, The New Right, is an attempt by the two ministers to challenge their old boss Benjamin Netanyahu and prepare for the day he leaves the stage.
At the press conference announcing the move in Tel Aviv, Mr Bennett said that the prime minister “realised that the national-religious community is in his pocket, and no matter how much he abused them, at the end they will always go with him.”
Mr Netanyahu has often been accused accused of taking his religious supporters — whether they vote Likud or for any other party in his coalition parties — for granted. At this stage, the new party is seen as a challenge to Likud, not to the premiership directly.
The polls currently have The New Right receiving between six and 14 seats in the next Knesset, meaning it will at most become a junior member of the next coalition — if Mr Netanyahu’s Likud indeed forms the next government after April 9.
“Naftali is positioning himself for the day after Bibi goes. His first step is re-branding himself as the leader of a
new party,” one confidante of Mr Bennett said this week. “The next step will be to challenge Likud after Netanyahu, or perhaps even to merge his new party into Likud.
“Ultimately, he thinks this is the vehicle which could take him all the way to the prime minister’s office. He knows that with a religious party like
Jewish Home, he can’t get there.”
Along with the two ministers, Shuli Mualem MK has joined the new party, leaving five Knesset members behind in the rump of Jewish Home.
It presents a dilemma for the religious-right party, which may now struggle to cross the electoral threshold. One option could be to join forces
with far-right splinter factions, perhaps including Kahanist elements.
But these could taint the once-venerable National Religious Party and — if Jewish Home falls to cross that threshold — cost a Netanyahu coalition valuable votes.
MENAHEM BEGIN spent almost three decades astutely constructing a broad coalition of the right based on his own Herut movement until his election in 1977, when he began to realise that the responsibilities of office differed vastly from opposition.
He was confronted with a rebellion when only 57 per cent of Herut loyalists voted for the Camp David peace accord with Egypt in the Knesset. The dissenters mistakenly believed that Begin, having returned Sinai to the Egyptians, was about to return the West Bank as well. Many formed the core of a new party, Tehiya, to the right of Begin’s Likud.
This episode, centred around the return of territory, established the template for future schisms. Each time the centre-right made a pragmatic decision that could be construed as a concession, there was a split to the far right. This is one reason why Benjamin Netanyahu has always been reticent about putting forward any peace plan.
The core of Naftali Bennett’s former party Jewish Home was the National Religious Party (NRP). From 1948 until the Six Day War, it remained close to the labour movement and served in successive Ben-Gurion governments. Its main task was to ensure that the religious public’s needs were met, and not ignored, by secular governments. But the conquest of the West Bank in 1967 served to promote a messianic fervour and a settlement drive that moved the party to the right. The rise of a militant “Young Guard” replaced a broad religious Zionism with a narrow Zionist religion.
By 1990 splinter parties such as Tehiya, Tsomet and Moledet were governing in coalition with the Likud. Its adherents reacted to the Oslo Accord in 1993 with vociferous demonstrations and the vilification of Yitzhak Rabin in the period before his assassination.
Mr Netanyahu’s agreement to return 13 per cent of the West Bank at the Wye Plantation talks in 1998 led to the formation of the farright National Union. It subsequently held ministries in Ariel Sharon’s government, but left because it opposed the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. In December 2008, factions of the National Union and remnants of the moribund NRP established Jewish Home, but gained three seats at the 2009 election.
Three years later the party was taken over by Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, former Likud members who held posts in Mr Netanyahu’s office. They coated their hardline approach with a charisma and modernity that appealed not only to the religious public, but many secularists too. A new generation of Strictly Orthodox Charedim, far more nationalist than their parents, flocked to Mr Bennett’s standard.
The new leader’s rise coincided with the emergence of identity politics in Israel. Avigdor Lieberman formed Yisrael Beiteinu around a core of newly arrived Russian immigrants who could not stomach the very idea of socialism in Israel, given their experience in the Soviet Union. Mr Lieberman built this into a right-wing party that opposed religious coercion and embraced secularism.
The Mizrahi party, Shas, also moved to the right: in the 1990s its leadership was labelling foreign workers as alcoholics and drug users who were stealing jobs from Israelis.
The turmoil in the Arab world, the widening gap between “haves” and “have-nots” and the influence of resurgent ultra-nationalism in Europe have propelled many Israelis to the far right: in the outgoing Knesset, it accounts for almost a quarter of MKs.
The periodic splits are historically an ongoing weakness. While Mr Bennett may believe that his new party will bring him closer to the premiership, initial polls suggest his election prospects are mixed. Most continue to favour the Likud: after all, Mr Netanyahu was not labelled ‘the Magician’ for nothing.
Younger Charedim flocked to Naftali Bennett
Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett announcing their split on Saturday evening
Menachem Begin and (below) Yitzhak Rabin, who formed a government in 1992 because the right-wing vote was split among several small parties