Out of the three elections currently taking place in Israel, the one for head of Bayit Yehudi is supposed to be by far the least interesting.
The May 23 election for head of the Histadrut labor federation has piqued interest because its two candidates, Shelly Yacimovich and Avi Nissenkorn, have been slinging mud. The July 4 race for Labor Party leader has attracted attention because there are nine candidates fighting over the leadership of the former ruling party that has only nine Knesset seats in polls.
But Bayit Yehudi? On March 8, when party leader Naftali Bennett announced that there would be an expedited election on April 27, people saw it as a minor technicality.
They thought Bennett was just trying to make a point that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s days were numbered because of his criminal investigations. Some even said Bennett initiated a fake election in order to have a legal excuse to go to the US and raise funds for his debt-ridden party.
In the last Bayit Yehudi race in January 2015, the only challenger to Bennett, Rabbi Shimon Or of Jerusalem’s Kiryat Yovel neighborhood, won only 10% of the vote.
So why is Bennett suddenly taking this election so seriously? Why has he raised some $100,000 for the race, almost entirely from American donors? Why has he bothered holding campaign events in Jerusalem, Petah Tikva, Haifa and Safed? And why is Bennett suddenly taking a stand and joining forces with Shas and United Torah Judaism against opening stores in Tel Aviv on Shabbat, even though it could harm his cool image among secular voters? The answer that Bennett’s advisers give is that he has a lot of respect for his main competition in the race, Yonatan Branski, a former IDF colonel, who headed the IDF’s ultra-Orthodox Nahal Haredi unit and served as deputy head of the IDF’s Gaza Brigade.
First of all, Branski outranks Bennett, whose rank in the reserves is major, after serving in the General Staff Reconnaissance and Maglan units. Branski has earned accolades from his 25 years of active IDF service.
Then, there are the numbers. After Bennett took the unconventional step of throwing out the entire party membership and starting a membership drive from scratch, there are only some 30,000 members eligible to vote. Only half are expected to cast ballots. It could end up being even lower, because so many people joined to advance their friends in municipal and party branch races that have nothing to do with who heads Bayit Yehudi.
With so few people, every voter matters. There are plenty of voters who don’t know Branski but want to vote against Bennett for either ideological or personal reasons.
Some are mad at Bennett for allowing Amona to be dismantled.
Others are upset the religious Zionist party is either not religious enough or not Zionist enough. There are also those upset Bennett did not keep in touch with them or come to a wedding or bar mitzva.
For protest votes, there is not only Branski but also third candidate Rabbi Yitzhak Zagha, who heads the organization Spirit of Jerusalem, which is committed to studying the works of former chief rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hakohen Kook.
But there will also be plenty of people who will vote for Branski because they met him on the campaign trail and liked him. Branski is at a great disadvantage against a strong incumbent in a short race disrupted by Purim, Passover, and Holocaust Remembrance Day, but he remains undaunted.
He hired respected strategists Ethan Dor-Shav and Moti Morel. He has ties in the periphery as head of Hosen, a movement that works to build leadership in the South and North and strengthen families.
And he can reach out to English-speaking voters, because he lived in Buffalo, New York, as a child, and like Bennett, speaks the language fluently.
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post
at a café in the capital, Branski said he was considering just running for the Knesset. But when he heard Bennett speak on the radio about changes he wanted to make in Bayit Yehudi, he decided he needed to challenge him for the party chairmanship.
“I realized we could lose the party, and there wouldn’t be a religious Zionist party for me to run in anymore,” Branski said. “He is using the party for a run for prime minister that has no chance. He wants to blur our religious-Zionist identity to find favor with the secular. But I think the more we reinforce our identity, the more support we will get.”
Branski promises that, if elected, the party will become more Orthodox and Zionist, focusing on caring for the religious nature of the state and ensuring that religious services will not remain in the hands of the haredim.
He also strongly opposes integrating women into combat units.
He got into trouble in November when, in an Army Radio interview, he recalled the operator of a store on an IDF base telling him that when the mixed combat unit Caracal is stationed there, contraceptives quickly sell out. But he said his main reason for opposing women serving in combat units is physical.
“Women serving in combat units harms the IDF and the women,” he said. “Women are more likely to get hurt, and standards are lowered for them. No one integrates basketball leagues because the physical abilities of men and women are different. No one can deny the problem.”
Branski accused Bennett of using underhanded tactics in the election.
He said Bennett has lost support in the party’s grassroots, and that he is ready to take advantage.
“I have nothing against Naftali, but I am not spellbound by him either,” Branski said. “I’ve realized he is running the party with terror.
He or his people are bullying and being aggressive, threatening nonprofit organizations, rabbis, and municipalities that they will lose their funding if they support me. He is under pressure because he has realized that victory is not in his pocket.”
In response, Bennett’s office said that Branski’s comments were “nonsense.”