Bennett and Shaked plunging Bayit Yehudi into irrelevance - Analysis

In a way, the problem Bayit Yehudi faces reflects an ongoing trend in religious Zionism.

Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett (R) and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked enter the room before delivering their statements in Tel Aviv, Israel December 29, 2018 (photo credit: CORINNA KERN/REUTERS)
Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett (R) and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked enter the room before delivering their statements in Tel Aviv, Israel December 29, 2018
(photo credit: CORINNA KERN/REUTERS)
When Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked announced their departure from Bayit Yehudi to form the New Right, they were confident that they were expanding the Right and not taking votes away from their old party.
And they kept repeating that talking point, sometimes citing polls they took out that showed moderate right-wing voters who were considering centrist parties would move to the New Right, and extreme-right voters who thought Bennett and Shaked were too weak or not religious enough would vote for Bayit Yehudi without them there.
Fast forward to nearly a month later, and Bayit Yehudi is drowning in dysfunction. Not only have they not chosen a new party leader, but they could not get a two-thirds vote in its central committee last week to approve the way to choose a party leader, in this case, by canceling the primaries and having a committee pick one. Next week, the Bayit Yehudi central committee will reconvene to vote to allow the new method of choosing a leader to be approved by a simple majority, after which they will vote again on whether to cancel the primaries and appoint a committee to do it. And only then can leadership contenders submit candidacy.
While Bayit Yehudi tried to untie that knot, it has fallen below the electoral threshold in many polls, and just barely making it over the line in others, and the New Right is doing the same or slightly worse than Bayit Yehudi did in the current Knesset, eight seats.
This means that they’re increasing the number of voters on the Right that vote for New Right and Bayit Yehudi combined than voted for just Bayit Yehudi – but it is far from certain that they will end up with more seats in the Knesset.
Rabbi Haim Druckman, one of religious Zionism’s most respected and influential rabbis and the head of the Center for Bnei Akiva Yeshivot, clearly knew this is coming. Within days of the split, he said that although Bennett and Shaked had discussed their plans with him, he felt misled, because they said the New Right would not hurt Bayit Yehudi electorally.
There are still 74 days left until the elections, and plenty could change. For example, there could be mergers between parties on the way. Those decisions will have to be made by February 21, when party lists are submitted to the Central Elections Committee.
Bayit Yehudi ran together with National Union in three of the last four elections (under its old name, the National Religious Party, in 2006) and could very well do the same in 2019.
The polls that the New Right keeps whispering about to journalists also say that if MK Bezalel Smotrich, the new leader of the National Union, runs at the head of a merged list, they’ll get two to three more seats. Smotrich, a bogeyman to the Left, is popular in some circles on the Right, including those who hesitated to vote Bayit Yehudi because the most-right-wing party in the Knesset was still too moderate for them. He’s an effective lawmaker, outspoken and not politically correct.
Another scenario that has been floated is a broad religious-Zionist bloc that would merge Bayit Yehudi and National Union with Otzma Yehudit, the right-wing extremist party led by Hebron activist Baruch Marzel, a former disciple of Rabbi Meir Kahane, who was banned from electoral politics on grounds of racist incitement.
Smotrich is not far from Otzma’s views. He has said he doesn’t like that his wife gave birth in a maternity ward where Arabs were also present. And he once organized the “animal march,” parading livestock in the streets of Jerusalem in protest against the Gay Pride Parade in the capital.
These various merger scenarios make an assumption that everyone who thinks religious Zionism needs its own representation in the Knesset, as opposed to a mixed religious-secular party like the New Right, is also willing to vote for extremism. It’s true that Smotrich ran on the Bayit Yehudi list last time, but he was not the leader of the bloc, or even of the National Union’s quarter of the bloc. And Bennett and Shaked were strong enough to dominate the campaign messaging.
Now, as kind and friendly as Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben-Dahan can be, he won’t be able to cover for Smotrich. Nor will the other Bayit Yehudi MK running for reelection, Moti Yogev, who is only about a millimeter to Smotrich’s left, both in policy and rhetoric.
Bayit Yehudi has been shrinking for many years, with more and more religious Zionists seeing themselves as sufficiently integrated into broader society to not need their own sectoral party in the Knesset. Bennett and Shaked briefly gave them a boost, but the party’s insiders and activists elected MKs to stand behind them that were not willing to modernize along with much of the community.
In a way, the problem Bayit Yehudi faces reflects an ongoing trend in religious Zionism, which has become divided between those who are more modern and liberal – though still right-wing – and see themselves as part of society as a whole, and the “hardal” sector, which is more religious, more likely to avoid people with lifestyles different from their own and, in many cases, more politically extreme.
Bayit Yehudi’s DNA is not hardal. They are the middle-of-the-road religious Zionists; they are the descendants of the Mizrahi Movement and Bnei Akiva, the foundational religious-Zionist organizations.
Running together with extreme parties that can’t make it into the Knesset on their own may help Bayit Yehudi pass the electoral threshold, but it won’t stop their descent into irrelevance unless they find a way to appeal to the mainstream of religious Zionism that used to vote for them.
And it may be that Bennett and Shaked – who isn’t even religious – took over Bayit Yehudi’s historic role.