Bennett’s new rightist party a ‘big risk’

Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett, right, and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked enter the room before announcing they are forming a new right-wing party. Photo by Corinna Kern/Reuters/Newscom

With elections called for April and Israeli parties breaking up on the left and right, Education Minister Naftali Bennett last week proclaimed his arrival as a serious challenger from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right flank when he broke from the Jewish Home party and announced the formation of the New Right party with Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked as his partner.

But Bennett’s new nationalist party will have to overcome a number of hurdles if it is to be a serious challenge to Netanyahu and the Likud: namely, a limited amount of time with which it can craft a detailed platform, introduce itself to voters and attract strong Knesset candidates. It will also be contending with a crowded field of right-wing parties, including Bennett and Shaked’s old Jewish Home party, itself an amalgam of two religious Zionist parties.

Bennett describes New Right as secular and right-wing, though he and Shaked, who is a secular Jew, say they hope to attract nationalist Orthodox voters. That would be at the expense of Jewish Home and the Likud. Lahav Harkov of the Jerusalem Post wrote that Bennett and Shaked are taking “a calculated risk, but a very big one.”

“[They] may think that they can take [Netanyahu’s] Likud votes instead of killing their old home [Jewish Home],” Harkov wrote, “but they are further dividing up right-wing votes to a point that only the Likud is a sure thing to pass the electoral threshold of 3.25 percent of the votes.

Bennett has made no secret that he wants to replace Netanyahu in the prime minister’s office. And he has been
critical of Netanyahu’s handling of violence at the Gaza border, calling for a stronger response. But having backed down from an ultimatum he delivered to Netanyahu, some Israelis view Bennett’s own strength with skepticism.

Netanyahu called for elections after police recommended he be indicted for receiving bribes. The case is in the hands of Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit.

For Erez Michaely, a postdoctoral student at the University of Maryland and a Tel Aviv native, there are appealing aspects of Bennett and Shaked’s new party. For starters, he likes the job Bennett has done as the minister of education, a post he’s held since 2015.

And the party’s support of free markets is intriguing, said Michaely, a self-described classical liberal. Michaely isn’t a fan of Bennett’s opposition to the creation of a Palestinian state. (Bennett has called for the annexation of parts of the West Bank.)

But, Michaely said, Bennett “is honest, unlike a lot of other politicians, including our prime minister. I think he’s the most important minister in Israel. I really respect him, but I wouldn’t vote for his party.”

Instead, Michaely supports Yesh Atid, a centrist party that supports greater religious pluralism led by former Minister of Finance Yair Lapid.

Mark Mellman, a Washington-based pollster who is working for Lapid in the April election, said Bennett’s new party would split the country’s rightwing voters.

“I think you’re seeing the splintering of the right, they’re basically going for the same folks,” Mellman said.
He also said that voters might be skeptical of Bennett after a recent showdown with Netanyahu. In November, Bennett’s then-party, Jewish Home, demanded that Netanyahu appoint Bennett to the defense minister post and threatened to resign from his education position and break up the coalition government if he didn’t get it.

When Netanyahu instead made himself the interim defense minister, Bennett backed down and said he would give the government another chance. Mellman said he didn’t think Bennett’s new party would ultimately be all that successful.

“I don’t think it’s going to be ascendant. Bennett made some very critical mistakes around his ultimatum and then backing down from it.”

(Bennett had demanded that Netanyahu appoint him defense minister and threatened to break up the governing coalition otherwise.)

“Bibi basically called his bluff and he backed down,” Mellman said. “People have real doubts about his strength now. I think they had doubts about his wisdom beforehand, but they have doubts about his strength now.”
When it comes time for Israelis to vote, Mellman said it would likely come down to Netanyahu’s Likud and Lapid’s Yesh Atid, which supports a two-state solution. If Bennett’s new party is going to have a chance in this election or the next, he may have to draw from Likud voters turned off by Netanyahu’s legal troubles.

Uri Wolf, an IT security consultant who grew up in Jerusalem and lives in Washington, said he’d probably stick with Likud if he were to vote, though he hasn’t ruled out casting a vote for New Right. He’s supported Netanyahu in the past, but said the criminal investigations concern him. If there was a viable alternative, Wolf said he would be supportive, but he said Bennett strikes him as an opportunist who’s mostly concerned about his own career.

“The idea for the party is strong,” said Wolf. “But to be with the Netanyahu government all that time only to depart now, when Netanyahu is weak — he is clearly motivated by self-interest.”

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