Bennett’s religion and state pitch designed to suck up right-wing votes

With their new pitch for religious moderation, Bennett and New Right and look to have those voters in their sights.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Naftali Bennett tour Mount Avital in the Golan Heights (photo credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Naftali Bennett tour Mount Avital in the Golan Heights
(photo credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO)
On Tuesday night, New Right leader Naftali Bennett said that he will demand the Religious Services Ministry for his party in any government it might be part of after the coming election.
Bennett wrote on Twitter Tuesday night that the New Right would “bring back the religious services portfolio to religious-Zionism,” in reference to the fact that for many years, it was the religious-Zionist National Religious Party which ran the ministry, and not one of the ultra-Orthodox parties – as has become customary over the last two decades.
“Our tradition and our heritage need to become the glue of unity, not a battle field,” continued Bennett, referencing the numerous and frequent political conflicts that have arisen in recent years over religion and state matters.
“We need to bring back Judaism that draws people in: for kashrut, marriage, conversion, everything,” he said.
This pledge to retake the religious services ministry for religious-Zionism and a more moderate Judaism than that advanced by the ultra-Orthodox parties appears to be part of a new campaign by the New Right to attract two sets of voters: those who voted for Yisrael Beytenu in September and moderate religious-Zionist voters.
During the September election, Liberman conducted a fierce campaign attacking the ultra-Orthodox parties and the “messianists” as he labeled Bayit Yehudi, National Union and Otzma Yehudit, accusing them of trying to create a “state of Jewish law” in Israel.
He vowed to overhaul the status quo on religion and state by introducing civil marriage; allowing moderate rabbis to perform Jewish conversion; allowing public transportation and increased commercial activity on Shabbat for cities that want it; conditioning state funding for ultra-Orthodox schools on teaching the core curriculum; and drafting ultra-Orthodox men into military service.
As a result, Yisrael Beytenu garnered three extra seats, and very nearly four, over their April election result, while Likud lost three seats.
When bearing in mind that the moderate right-wing party Kulanu ran independently in April and took four seats but folded itself into Likud in the September elections, it appears that many of those moderate right-wing voters voted for Yisrael Beytenu in the second round of elections.
With their new pitch for religious moderation, Bennett and his New Right look to have those voters in their sights.
Moderate religious-Zionist voters are another population sector whose votes are up for grabs.
These voters have become somewhat disenfranchised by the takeover of Bayit Yehudi by religiously hard-line conservative elements, as well as voters from the general public who oppose the dominance of the hard-line religious-Zionist and ultra-Orthodox parties over significant aspects of daily life in Israel.
During the last election, New Right ran together with Bayit Yehudi and the National Union which are fiercely conservative on religious issues such as marriage and conversion, as well as the standing and status of the Chief Rabbinate.
The parties under the banner of the Yamina united list therefore downplayed religion and state issues in their campaign because of the sharp divides between them.
New Right co-founder Ayelet Shaked, who led the joint ticket, even told The Jerusalem Post in an interview ahead of the September election that she did not support civil marriage, and would not even give explicit backing to a watered-down version of civil marriage known as civil partnerships.
Shaked also said she believed the debate over religion and state issues was overblown, and that a “glass half full, not half empty” attitude was needed when examining such matters.
In the upcoming election, Bayit Yehudi, National Union, and the far-right Otzma Yehudit Party, which is equally hard-line on religious issues, will likely all run together.
Since religious hard-liners in the religious-Zionist community comprise only about 15% to 20% of the sector, Bennett likely sees a good opportunity now to siphon off more votes from those parties with a pitch for moderation on religion and state issues.
The ability, and indeed the political will, of New Right to implement this agenda remains in doubt however.
Unlike Liberman, Bennett, Shaked and the New Right Party have pledged loyalty to the Likud, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the right-wing, religious political bloc, which includes the ultra-Orthodox parties.
Introducing liberalizing policies on civil marriage, conversion, public transport on Shabbat and the like is anathema to United Torah Judaism and Shas – not to mention the hard-liners in Bayit Yehudi and the National Union – and it would be impossible to implement them in any government that includes those parties.
Liberman himself does not have a good track record of implementing change on religion and state issues, but he has vowed not to join a government with the ultra-Orthodox and hard-line religious-Zionists, a pledge he adhered to after the last election.
What is not in doubt is that with several parties now seeking to raise the banner of religious moderation, the issue has finally become front and center of the political debate, and voters seeking liberalization on these matters can be heartened that politicians are now paying them attention.