Naftali Bennett is responsible for the rise of Itamar Ben-Gvir - analysis

Instead of moderate religious right-wingers, Israel’s Knesset is now full of the religious extreme and radical right-wingers.

 THEN-PRIME MINISTER Naftali Bennett announces he will not run in the next election, at the Knesset, June 29. (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
THEN-PRIME MINISTER Naftali Bennett announces he will not run in the next election, at the Knesset, June 29.
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

On Thursday, Naftali Bennett, the alternate and former prime minister, informed Yair Lapid of his decision to resign from the government.

With a new government on its way to being formed by Benjamin Netanyahu, there was no reason, Bennett said, for him to remain in the cabinet. In a few weeks there will be a new right-wing government anyway.

It was amazing timing. Ten years after Bennett – who with his partner Ayelet Shaked took over the Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home) Party, won 12 seats, and climbed all the way to the top – was now on his way out.

On the other hand, if there is one person who is responsible for the outcome of last week’s election in Israel and the rise of the far-and-racist Right in Israel, it is Bennett.

His decision in June 2021 to cross party lines and join the Center-Left in creating an anti-Netanyahu government led to the results in this past election. Instead of moderate religious right-wingers, Israel’s Knesset is now full of the religious extreme and radical Right wing.

 ITAMAR BEN-GVIR will not make Benjamin Netanyahu’s life easy in a government they form together. (credit: CORINNA KERN/REUTERS) ITAMAR BEN-GVIR will not make Benjamin Netanyahu’s life easy in a government they form together. (credit: CORINNA KERN/REUTERS)

Bennett is out of politics and Shaked is also gone. Yoaz Hendel and Zvika Hauser, members of New Hope who had briefly merged with Shaked, are also out.

The only three members of the Yamina Party who survived were Idit Silman and Amichai Chikli – who brought down the last government and were rewarded by Netanyahu for their defection with a spot in Likud – and Matan Kahana, who Gadi Eisenkot forced Benny Gantz to add to the National Unity Party list even though he didn’t want to.

No moderate religious rightists

Instead of Bennett and Shaked, the country now has Itamar Ben-Gvir and the likes of Avi Maoz, the homophobic leader of the Noam faction within the Religious Zionist Party. Instead of people like Hendel and Hauser, we will get Yitzhak Wasserlauf, who mocks progressive Jews, and Almog Cohen, who claims that pride parades are “animalistic.”

The bottom line is that the moderate religious won’t exist anymore in the coalition. They might be in National Unity or Yesh Atid, but those people – like Kahana and Elazar Stern – will be in the opposition, where their influence will be severely limited.

And how did this happen? Because of Bennett and his act of “betrayal,” as it was perceived by his voters.

Take the city of Givat Shmuel as an example. In 2021, almost a quarter (24%) of voters in the bastion of religious-Zionists voted for Bennett’s Yamina. In 2022, the same percentage voted for Ben-Gvir.

In Efrat, another center of religious-Zionism, Bennett received 43% of the vote in 2021. In last week’s election, almost half (48%) of Efrat voters slipped in a ballot for Ben-Gvir.

Elkana is another example. In 2021, almost 40% voted for Bennett. This time around, 52% voted for Ben-Gvir.

These voters are not necessarily racists or fascists like Ben-Gvir and his gang. What they are, though, are people who were angry with Bennett and wanted to punish him for what he had done.

For many of them, his move last year was perceived to be like the 2005 Disengagement from the Gaza Strip. Then, Likud supporters thought they had voted for Ariel Sharon, the settlement builder, and instead they got Sharon the settlement destroyer.

It was a statement by right-wing voters to the politicians who crossed the line and entered into a government that was viewed by many of them as a betrayal of their values.

Gideon Sa’ar understood this early on in the election campaign and succeeded in merging with Gantz, a move that saved him from the electoral threshold and a fate similar to that of Shaked and Bennett.

The full lesson from this remains to be seen.

On the one hand, it shows that a betrayal of voters will not be forgiven. Violating a campaign promise like Bennett did last year – he initially promised not to sit with Lapid – was not forgotten. The voters remembered what he did – and on Tuesday, they responded.