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


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