The New Right: A bold, dramatic stroke

As Bennett and Shaked may have made the Jewish Home that they abandoned uninhabitable for modernizers, they have the burden of making their party a home for its refugees.

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 decision by Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked to form the breakaway New Right (Hayamin Hechadash) party left me with mixed feelings.
I was satisfied to see Bennett finally mounting a challenge to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from the right. This was coupled with Shaked’s assessment that this will be Netanyahu’s final term even if he overcomes his legal difficulties. No one disputes Netanyahu’s talents but he has reigned long enough. Interviewed by Dan Shilon, a younger Netanyahu once proposed setting a two-term limit to the premiership but Netanyahu apparently has forgotten his own prescription now that he has exceeded that limit.
A reality exists in which Netanyahu is not only primus inter pares but first with no one approaching equality. This is epitomized by Netanyahu’s simultaneous occupancy of the premiership, defense ministry and foreign ministry. Since this state of affairs remains unchallenged within the Likud, for fear of offending Jupiter, it falls to Bennett and Shaked to offer the right an alternative.
Bennett’s decision is the type of bold dramatic stroke that Macchiavelli would have approved of but it is also laced with the cruelty associated with the Florentine statesman-theorist. Bennett opted for a quick sharp divorce from the Jewish Home on the threshold of elections rather than a post-election separation. As Motti Karpel wrote in Makor Rishon this left many of us feeling like children whose parents had divorced and their children retain strong feelings for both of them.
Ideally, I believed Religious Zionism should be a meeting place for both conservatives and modernizers with each group playing its role and avoiding divorce. The modernizers would press for the necessary initiatives mandated by Israel’s circumstances while the conservatives would act as a necessary brake against too precipitous a process and the temptation to conflate current fashion with urgent necessity. Unfortunately, Religious Zionism as well has succumbed like others to the niche politics that has become the bane of Western politics.
With some of the modernizers following Bennett out of Jewish Home, the pendulum will necessarily swing to the conservative wing. It has the most dynamic MK in the person of Bezalel Smotrich. To pass the electoral threshold, the party would need to ally itself with even more conservative elements such as ex Shas leader Eli Yishai and the Otzma party. This may turn into a vicious cycle as the further the party moves to the right religiously, the greater the tendency of modernizers to bolt it.
As Bennett and Shaked may have made the Jewish Home that they abandoned uninhabitable for modernizers, they have the burden of making their party a home for its refugees especially as they will be competing for these voters in the elections.
While I incline to their new party, I want to be sure what their religious-secular everyman’s party is about. It is laudable that the party is bicephalus – the religiously observant Bennett and the secular but traditionalist Shaked get top billing and the party’s Knesset list will be equally divided between secular and religious. However, will Bennett and Shaked’s abandonment of an avowedly religious party mean that that their party is renouncing ownership on religious issues for fear of being labeled a religious party with secularist fig leaves?
The desire of Bennett and Shaked to compete in the big leagues could induce them to emulate the sad example of Likud and Labor who were prepared make religious affairs a Haredi fiefdom in exchange for the unquestioned foreign policy support by the ultra-Orthodox parties. If so, it may be too hefty a price to pay.
I do think that the country needs a Bennett in the Defense Ministry because someone must question old assumptions in a rapidly changing battlefield environment. A second term in the Justice Ministry for Shaked is crucial to the effort to rebalance the relationships between the three branches of government and roll back judicial imperialism. However, the party cannot duck the religious issues or even sidestep them by proclaiming its support for the Gavison-Meidan blueprint for a new religious-secular status quo. It will have to wade in and lead in the pressing religious issues.
The elections have put the issue of army or national service for all on temporary hold but it will resurface once a new government has taken office. Former Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman drafted a sensible plan that most Haredi politicians could live with. It was, however, torpedoed by one Haredi luminary and it will be necessary to get it through the next Knesset.
A more serious ticking time bomb is the conversion issue where a hidebound conversion apparatus manages to stymie even serious Orthodox rabbinic scholars. Yes, the Judaic approach is to first advise the would-be convert that he can be a just person in his current faith. However, we have cases of applicants persisting numerous years, who still find their road to the Jewish faith blocked.
The Knesset lists have not yet been finalized but Bennett and Shaked have so far recruited quality candidates for their list. It would be reassuring if they could find room for someone who could provide reassurance that their party accords priority to breaking the deadlock on these and other issues.