Whither religious-Zionist parties - analysis

The most critical and controversial split was that of Bayit Yehudi leaders Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked when they splintered off from their host party to form New Right.

Leaders of Hayamin Hechadash Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Leaders of Hayamin Hechadash Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The last 10 months have been a tumultuous time in politics for the entire country, with political alliances broken and forged across the political map – not least in the religious-Zionist community.
The sector has been roiled by one split after another on both its liberal and hard-line flanks, and after Yamina split into its separate constituency parties of New Right and Bayit Yehudi, questions are being asked about the future prospects of specifically sectoral religious-Zionist parties.
The most critical and controversial split was that of Bayit Yehudi leaders Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked when they splintered off from their host party to form New Right.
Once elections were announced in December 2018, Bennett and Shaked split away from the increasingly hard-line Bayit Yehudi and essentially announced that they aspired to something greater than the leadership of a particular sector in Israeli society.
New Right was formed as an ideologically right-wing party which was explicitly not religious in character – a concept designed to create a party which right-wing voters of a secular or liberal inclination could vote for.
Although New Right narrowly failed to pass the electoral threshold in the April election, the political salvation of new elections in September allowed the party to enter the Knesset at the second time of asking, albeit together in a political marriage of convenience with the Bayit Yehudi party from which it had been seeking to escape.
This week, New Right was able to separate once again from Bayit Yehudi as the Yamina alliance was dissolved, as agreed prior to the election.
And although it appeared that New Right was not politically viable by itself, officials in the party insist that the political map in April 2019 was uniquely detrimental to the new party lost votes to both Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut party and a Likud led by the increasingly desperate and wounded Benjamin Netanyahu.
In the April election New Right took just under 140,000 votes by itself – virtually four Knesset seats – while Bayit Yehudi, without the appendage of the far right Otzma Yehudit party, is probably worth no more than 80,000 votes, less than three seats in Knesset.
Together with the fact that the Likud is estimated to have received some three-to-four of its seats from religious-Zionist voters, the viability of a specifically religious-Zionist party now looks to be in question.
Freshman New Right MK Matan Kahane argues that the time for explicitly sectoral parties in the religious-Zionist sector is coming to an end.
“The broad religious Zionist community is not looking for sectoral parties anymore, religious-Zionist voters have other inclinations,” Kahane told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday. “Why? Because we need to be in a different place, we need to look out for the good of the entire country not just our sector. Just like we [the religious-Zionist community] are in the army, in academia, in medicine, in the legal system, we don’t look at things with a sectoral view but with a broad perspective for the entire Jewish people and not through the glasses of the sector.”
Another source in New Right said that in the event there would be third elections, or indeed whenever the next election takes place, it was unlikely that the party would run with Bayit Yehudi because of its nature as an explicitly religious and increasingly hard-line conservative, sectoral party.
Former Bayit Yehudi MK Eli Ben-Dahan argues however that there will continue to be a need for an explicitly religious and sectoral party to represent the religious-Zionist community, both ideologically and practically.
Ben-Dahan noted that the religious-Zionist parties in their various guises have been the political expression of one of the core beliefs of the community in the importance of the state as the heralding of the final redemption.
As such, the State of Israel’s religious institutions such as the Chief Rabbinate in particular have taken on high significance for religious-Zionism which sees in them the return of an ultimate authority for Jewish religious life.
“There are many things which the religious-Zionist community still needs and which it needs to address,” said Ben-Dahan. “And there is a special status to the ideology of the religious-Zionist movement that the state is the beginning of the redemption, and which embodies the vision of the prophets, while at the same time avoiding isolationism and being involved in the state, in the army, society, economy, this is complex ideology which is not expressed by anyone else, a combination of secular and holy.”
Where Kahane and Ben-Dahan do agree is that Bayit Yehudi increasingly represents only the more hard-line, conservative wing of the religious-Zionist movement.
“People who vote for Bayit Yehudit understands that we support the status of the Chief Rabbinate, that we are against civil marriage, this is a foundation stone,” Kahane said. “Religious Zionism is very dispersed today principally around the issues of religion and state,” adding that the current political representatives of Bayit Yehudi do not represent the mainstream of the religious-Zionist sector, thought to be some 70% of the community.
Religious-Zionism is therefore at a political crossroads, with arguably the majority of its voters choosing to vote for parties which are not explicitly religious, principally New Right and Likud.
This is certainly a revolution from the old paradigm of the sector being represented by a sectoral party, and although it would seem that a traditional religious-Zionist party will continue to represent some of the community, its influence could be in terminal decline.