Education Minister Naftali Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi party set an April 27 date for a leadership race Thursday night at a meeting of the party’s secretariat and election committee.
The final day to join the party in order to vote in the race will be March 20. The last day to join the race will be April 9. No candidate had formally submitted his candidacy Thursday night, but Bennett will be challenged in the race by at least three contenders.
One top challenger is expected to be Yonatan Branski, a retired IDF colonel who headed the IDF’s ultra-Orthodox Nahal Haredi unit and served as deputy head of the IDF’s Gaza Brigade. Branski currently heads Hosen, a movement that works to build leadership in the periphery and strengthen families. He lived in Buffalo, New York as a child and speaks fluent English.
Shimon Or, a rabbi in Jerusalem’s Kiryat Yovel neighborhood, won some 10% of the vote in the last Bayit Yehudi leadership race and is expected to run again.
Rabbi Yitzhak Zaga, who heads an organization called Spirit of Jerusalem that is committed to studying the works of former chief rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hakohen Kook, said he would run.
All of the MKs in Bayit Yehudi have already endorsed Bennett.
Bayit Yehudi's Jerusalem branch, which has opposed Bennett since he entered politics, will back Branski in the race. Branski has been endorsed by the head of the branch, Itzik Moshe and his wife, Jerusalem deputy mayor Hagit Moshe.
"With Branski leading us, we will be a religious Zionist party and not Likud Bet like Bennett wants," said Jerusalem branch council member Avraham Cimerring.
Sources close to Bennett said his decision to advance the primary was unconnected to the current investigations of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but they said Bayit Yehudi has to be ready in case early elections are called.
Bennett’s associates believe that whenever Netanyahu leaves politics, Bennett will be able to use Bayit Yehudi as a platform to succeed him. They denied reports that he would seek to merge Bayit Yehudi with the Likud ahead of the next election.