Analysis: Will Bennett and Shaked's 'New Right' gamble pay off?

Bennett and Shaked may think that they can take Likud votes instead of killing their old home, but they are further dividing up right-wing votes.

Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked address the media, November 19, 2018 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked address the media, November 19, 2018
Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked’s break from Bayit Yehudi, their political home for the past six years, to form Hayamin Hehadash (The New Right) came as a surprise to many – and, in fact, the final decision was only made on Thursday – but it has been several years in the making.
They said this move was a response to what happened in the last month, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu boxed them into a corner in November, saying the security situation was too sensitive for an election, only to turn around in December and bring down the government.
But really, Bennett and Shaked were always too ambitious to stay in a party that was happy to stand behind Netanyahu, even when they disagreed with him. They see themselves as future prime ministers, not as eternal education and justice ministers. The question is whether this will bring them closer to their goals or be a step backwards.
Bennett and Shaked have long been at odds with their former party on many issues. The duo is solidly right-wing when it comes to diplomatic issues – Bayit Yehudi was the only party in the last Knesset that had no to a Palestinian state in its platform. But they break with their party on many other matters, from religious pluralism to socioeconomic matters, and were barely able to move the dial on any of them.
Way back in 2012, when the two former Netanyahu aides decided to enter national politics, they planned to run in a religious-secular right-wing party called The Israelis. It was MK Uri Orbach, now deceased, who moved what was then known as Bayit Yehudi-National Religious Party (NRP) to a system of primaries and convinced Bennett to join.
Bennett and Shaked took Bayit Yehudi by storm, winning the top spots.
But what was predicted to be a hurricane ended up being more like the weather we’ve been having across Israel this weekend: Wet and windy, but nothing earth-shattering.
Bennett and Shaked were the smiling faces on billboards with the slogan about “something new starting,” talking about secular and religious people working together to advance a solidly right-wing ideology along with a kinder, friendlier rabbinate and – something many probably forgot – a more open economy.
But Bayit Yehudi members had entirely different ideas. To paraphrase Genesis: The voice was the voice of Bayit Yehudi, but the hands were the hands of the NRP. Yes, a list made up almost entirely of new faces was elected to the Knesset, but those faces mostly still look like they belong to the board of a synagogue that no longer has any kids around to attend its youth minyan, and they have the views to match. There was no one representing the younger, more liberal stream of religious-Zionism, other than Bennett himself.
And there were representatives of the more extreme religious-Zionism, known as hardal, in the Tekuma party that had two representatives on the Bayit Yehudi list. MK Bezalel Smotrich, who has become the bogeyman for the Left, has proven to be a highly effective legislator, but he’s also painted the entire Bayit Yehudi as racist – he said he wouldn’t want his wife to be next to an Arab woman in a maternity ward – and homophobic – he is a former organizer of protests against the Jerusalem gay pride parade.
The talk that has long been that they would eventually join the Likud, after Netanyahu, who despises them, is gone. But after Netanyahu’s shenanigans of the past month, they lost their patience and went a different way.
Now, Bennett and Shaked have dropped off the excess baggage. Gone are the conservative party establishment and the overgrown hilltop youth, Smotrich. They can populate the list with people who are hardliners on settlements and the Palestinians, but want solutions, like Bennett’s longstanding plan to annex Area C, and let A and B be autonomous zones with greater economic cooperation. And they can choose religious and secular candidates who are more moderate on other issues; for example, people who don’t side with the haredim on issues dealing with Shabbat or pluralism at the Western Wall or women in the IDF.
Not that they have the best track record of choosing people. In the last election, their first choice, soccer legend Eli Ohana, left the list after people within the party protested the decision and made remarks that could have been seen as racist against Sephardim. Their other appointee, journalist Yinon Magal, resigned from the Knesset under the cloud of sexual harassment accusations, for which police later found no evidence.
Also, Bennett and Shaked may think that they can take Likud votes instead of killing their old home, but they are further dividing up right-wing votes to a point that only the Likud is a sure thing to pass the electoral threshold of 3.25% of the votes. Bayit Yehudi, Yisrael Beytenu and Kulanu are all in danger of dropping below the minimum and out of the Knesset, which means they may be throwing tens of thousands of right-wing votes down the drain. It’s a calculated risk, but a very big one.
Bennett and Shaked were always going to break through the glass ceiling of a religious party on their way to trying to lead Israel. The question is whether this gamble is going to pay off, or if they’ve brought down a new, lower ceiling over themselves.