Analysis: The National Religious Party by any other name

Despite Bennett's best efforts, the Bayit Yehudi's new list is one in which legendary party leader and education minister Zevulun Hammer wouldn't feel uncomfortable.

Nafatali Bennett votes in Bayit Yehudi primary (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Nafatali Bennett votes in Bayit Yehudi primary
In recent days, Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett has taken to calling Labor-Hatnua “The Alignment,” Labor’s name from 1965-1968 and 1969-1991, along with saying the Left is stuck in the 90s, implying they are the party of the past.
After Thursday’s primary results, Labor-Hatnua can start calling Bayit Yehudi “The National Religious Party,” its name from 1956-2008.
Bennett has been trying to promote his party and himself as young and modern and welcoming to anyone who is right wing, regardless of religious observance. As such, he exuberantly endorsed Im Tirzu founder Ronen Shoval, a 35-year-old who doesn’t wear a kippa. He also pushed Yesha Council foreign envoy Danny Dayan, who wouldn’t bring down the party’s average age, but is secular and has diplomatic credentials, and Anat Roth, 40, an ex-Labor activist and adviser to former prime minister Ehud Barak who became right wing and religious after researching the Gaza disengagement.
Despite Bennett’s best efforts, the Bayit Yehudi’s new list is one in which legendary party leader and education minister Zevulun Hammer (1969-1998) wouldn’t feel uncomfortable – though, for the first time since he became an MK in 1969, it does not have a candidate named Zevulun in a realistic spot, and only two people on the list – Knesset Finance Committee chairman Nissan Slomiansky and Senior Citizens Minister Uri Orbach – have the classic NRP mustache.
Shoval reached the 16th spot, which is borderline unrealistic. With the exception of faction chairwoman Ayelet Shaked, who, granted, got more votes than anyone else, and former journalist Yinon Magal, whom Bennett appointed, the list is entirely religious-Zionist – and most are not on the liberal side of that fairly heterogeneous group.
Assuming, based on recent polls, that the party will get 15-16 seats, it will have three MKs from Tekuma, the more rabbinically-oriented party that is running on the Bayit Yehudi list, which includes Construction Minister Uri Ariel and Hebron resident MK Orit Struck.
The new face from Tekuma is Bezalel Smotrich, an attorney who founded the Regavim land-advocacy movement and was arrested on suspicion of planning to destroy infrastructure and block roads ahead of the disengagement, but was never charged.
MK Motti Yogev, who often sided with Tekuma on issues in which it came into conflict with Bayit Yehudi, usually related to religious affairs, is in 10th place. Yogev was a thorn in Bennett’s side throughout the last two years, though the party leader did nothing to openly hurt his campaign.
Bayit Yehudi also has two rabbis with long beards: Deputy Religious Affairs Minister Eli Ben-Dahan and former IDF chief rabbi Avihai Rontzki.
Both are religiously liberal in their politics, though that does not imply they will appeal to secular voters.
Aside from Magal and Smotrich – neither of whom ran in a primary – the top 10 are all incumbents and the former is the only new star in a realistic spot that Bennett could use in his campaign, since the latter will only be cannon fodder for those who want to call Bayit Yehudi “extremist.” Rontzki, who’s not an MK, was featured prominently in the last campaign as Bennett’s adviser on religious affairs.
Bennett also has an Ashkenazi problem. That is, the list is almost entirely of European descent – leaving out Ben-Dahan and Shuli Moalem-Refaeli, plus Shaked who reminded supporters at a campaign event that she is half Iraqi. The low Sephardi numbers could push voters of Middle Eastern or North African descent to Yahad Ha’am Itanu, for which MK Yoni Chetboun left Bayit Yehudi, if they are more religious, or the Likud, if less so.
What Bennett decides to do about Yehudit Shilat will show whether he accepts his party’s fate as NRP plus Shaked and Magal, or plans to make changes to mold the party to his image.
Shilat, 60, is the director of the Takana forum against sexual abuse and has classic NRP attitudes. Bennett did not endorse her in any way and reportedly refused to even have photos with her.
She is also the woman with the third-most votes in Bayit Yehudi and could be bumped up four spots that men hold to fill the 15th, which is saved for a woman.
Bennett considered using his right to appoint two more candidates to find a woman who is younger and perhaps secular or less religiously stringent, to fill Shilat’s spot.
But it’ll take a lot more than a fig leaf or three to hide that the Bayit Yehudi list is the National Religious Party by another name.