Netanyahu deals a setback to the cause of big-tent parties

After religious Zionists handed him victory, he spat in their faces – proving they really do need a party of their own.

Nafatali Bennett votes in Bayit Yehudi primary (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Nafatali Bennett votes in Bayit Yehudi primary

I’m not a big fan of small, sectoral parties and their extortionate demands. So despite being one of Bayit Yehudi’s natural constituents, a religious Zionist settler, I never considered voting for that party rather than Likud. Nevertheless, I cheered when Bayit Yehudi chairman Naftali Bennett put the thumbscrews on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last Tuesday – which is another way of saying that not only has Netanyahu squandered a golden opportunity to advance the cause of “big-tent” parties, he has actually set the cause back by years.

To understand why, start by comparing the election results to pre-election polls. For all the flak pollsters took afterward, their predictions were actually accurate to within a single seat for all but two parties: Netanyahu’s Likud and Bayit Yehudi. The former won 30 seats, seven more than even the best polls predicted. The latter won eight seats, roughly four less than pollsters predicted. In other words, about four seats worth of religious Zionist voters migrated from Bayit Yehudi to Likud on Election Day, thereby contributing significantly to Likud’s decisive margin over Zionist Union and its consequent appointment to form the next government.

This last-minute shift happened for two reasons. The first was a sense of national responsibility: Netanyahu spent the entire Election Day warning that if Likud didn’t outpoll Zionist Union by a significant margin, the left would form the next government, and many religious Zionists were convinced. So they decided to “sacrifice” their narrow communal interests in favor of what they saw as the greater good: preventing a left-wing government.
But the second reason is that they didn’t actually think they would be making such a big sacrifice. After all, Netanyahu had promised repeatedly before the election that Bayit Yehudi, Likud’s natural ally, would be his senior partner if he formed the next government. Moreover, Likud itself has many religious Zionist members and voters, as well as several religious Zionist MKs. So even if Bayit Yehudi shrank significantly, the last-minute floaters thought, Likud could still be trusted to look out for religious Zionist concerns.
And then the coalition talks began, and they discovered just how wrong they were.
It wasn’t just Netanyahu’s blatant personal contempt for Bennett, whom he loathes. It wasn’t just his ostentatious, weeks-long refusal to conduct serious talks with Bayit Yehudi, even as he lavished attention on other, smaller parties. It wasn’t even just the fact that “Likud sources” spent those weeks telling the media that Netanyahu’s preferred coalition would consist of Zionist Union, Kulanu and the Haredim, excluding Bayit Yehudi entirely. It was the fact that on issue after issue of importance to religious Zionists, Netanyahu didn’t merely capitulate to other parties; he capitulated without even putting up a fight, and without even giving religious Zionist concerns a hearing.
Thus, for instance, he gave Shas full control of the Religious Services Ministry and the rabbinical courts, refusing even to entertain Bennett’s proposal for some kind of power-sharing arrangement between Shas and Bayit Yehudi. He promised the Haredim to repeal a reform of the marriage registration process that not only made it easier for all Israelis to register their marriages, but had been prompted in part by the Haredi-dominated rabbinate’s effort to shut religious Zionist rabbis out of the marriage business. He backtracked on support for Bayit Yehudi’s flagship legislative initiatives, from judicial reform to a Basic Law declaring Israel the Jewish nation-state, because Kulanu objected. And on, and on, and on.
Until by last Tuesday, Bennett finally had enough, and issued an ultimatum: Either give us the Justice Ministry, or we’re keeping our eight seats out of the coalition, leaving you without the 61 needed for a government. And having no choice, Netanyahu capitulated.
But even then, he couldn’t stop flaunting his ingratitude toward the religious Zionists who returned him to power: Those same “Likud sources” promptly told the media that Netanyahu’s top goal now is to add Zionist Union to the government, after which his first move will be to kick Bayit Yehudi out.
The lesson for religious Zionists is clear: Bayit Yehudi was right all along when it insisted that voting Likud wouldn’t protect the community’s interests; only a strong religious Zionist party could do that – at least as long as Netanyahu heads Likud. As a result, not only will most of those last-minute floaters probably return to Bayit Yehudi next election, but other religious Zionists who have long been Likud supporters may well do the same.
Yet had Netanyahu made a reasonable attempt from the start to accommodate religious Zionist concerns, the outcome might have very different: Not only might many of those last-minute floaters have been happy that they voted Likud and seriously considered sticking with the party next time around, but other Bayit Yehudi voters might have entertained the idea of doing the same.
I’m a firm believer in big-tent parties. I’ve long thought there was no justification for the existence of a separate religious Zionist party, since religious Zionist concerns don’t actually differ greatly from those of mainstream Likud voters. Most of the latter are traditionalists who, like religious Zionists, oppose a strict separation of religion and state, but also don’t want a Haredi-controlled rabbinate that insists on applying the most stringent possible interpretations of Jewish law.
Thus I’ve always thought that someday, Bayit Yehudi should simply merge with Likud, creating a solid center-right bloc with enough clout not only to win elections, but to actually govern afterward. As a step in that direction, I’ve even tried to persuade religious Zionist friends to vote Likud rather than Bayit Yehudi.
But it’s pretty hard to make that argument now. Religious Zionist voters aren’t going to forget how Netanyahu spat in their faces after they handed him victory on a silver platter; he’s made the case for Bayit Yehudi’s existence better than Bennett ever could.
Netanyahu probably won’t go unpunished; next time he begs religious Zionist voters to save him from electoral defeat, he’s liable to come home empty-handed. But that’s cold comfort for the huge and completely unnecessary blow he has dealt the cause of big-tent parties.