Israel Pulse

What has gone so wrong for the New Right?

Article Summary
New Right leaders Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked are making a frenzied effort to boost the popularity of their party amid the unexpected rise of Moshe Feiglin, who is eating away at their base.

Late last month as tensions surrounding Gaza escalated, the chairman of the New Right, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, launched a scathing media attack on March 25 against what he called Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s submissive policies toward Hamas. Bennett, a member of the Security Cabinet, even appealed to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to order Netanyahu to convene the Security Cabinet on the issue. He went on to accuse the prime minister of excluding the other ministers from the decision-making process and taking action on his own. Yet, the real reason behind Bennett's assault was to inject some life into his party’s election campaign, which has failed to take off.

Bennett's partner in the New Right’s leadership, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, a member of the Security Cabinet as well, played an active role in the campaign against Netanyahu. She gave numerous interviews and tweeted incessantly, with messages along the lines of “Enough of this disgrace. Bennett for Defense” and “Shaked will defeat the Supreme Court, and Bennett will defeat Hamas.” The New Right depicted Netanyahu as having failed to deal with Hamas from a security perspective throughout his tenure.

The meticulously targeted attacks were launched in the hope that voters on the right, who support a heavy-handed policy toward Hamas, would be convinced that the New Right is the solution. The strategy, however, failed to improve the New Right’s standing in the polls. It was a lot like Shaked’s “fascist fragrance” video. It may have attracted global attention, but it didn’t win the New Right any new votes.

According to a Channel 13 poll released April 2, the New Right will win just five seats. This is a poor showing for a party that believed it could be the hit of the 2019 elections when its two leaders surprised everyone by leaving HaBayit HaYehudi in December. At the press conference to announce the new party, Bennett and Shaked explained that it would be a home for religious and secular Jews and that they had reached the end of their road in a party controlled by the rabbis of the religious Zionist movement.

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Both Bennett and Shaked foresee running for the premiership one day as representatives of the right, so their maneuvering seemed like a wise move at the time. They had gained their independence, having broken free of the yoke imposed on them by the rabbis. They did this based on the assumption that once the Netanyahu era finally came to a close, they would be well positioned to skip over the Likud and conquer the highest office in the land.

In January, polls had predicted that they would win seven or eight seats, which wouldn't be a bad showing for a new party. In contrast, HaBayit HaYehudi was expected to collapse. Bennett and Shaked felt free at last. They spoke about how the rabbis were a burden, and how they were sure they would surprise everyone. Bennett even spoke of potentially winning 15 seats, though he believed that they would actually win 10.

The concept behind the New Right was a smart idea. It envisioned a party seeking common ground, acceptable to secular and religious Jews alike regardless of whether they lived in the settlements or in the heart of Tel Aviv. It received an initial boost of support because of Shaked's popularity as justice minister and her position in the party leadership alongside Bennett, but since then everything has more or less fallen apart.

Bennett and Shaked did not anticipate the rise of Zehut, the party headed by Moshe Feiglin, a right-wing extremist who is religious yet has managed to foster a reputation as a libertarian, mainly because of his support for legalizing marijuana. Feiglin had been flying under the radar for a long time, only to rise a few short weeks ago. Since then, all the polls show that he will definitely pass the electoral threshold, with a Channel 13 poll projecting him to win six seats.

Feiglin's electorate consists primarily of the same young right-wing voters from the religious-Zionism stream on which Bennett and Shaked rely. Furthermore, there was a certain schizophrenia in the way in which Bennett and Shaked viciously attacked Netanyahu but in the same breath announced that they would recommend him to the president to form the next government. Voters find that confusing.

The sense of frustration within the New Right is tangible. Shaked may have been one of the most popular ministers in the current Cabinet, but her magic touch has not thus far been of help. This even holds true in regard to her campaign announcing that as justice minister she plans to complete her revolution to reduce the power of the Supreme Court. All of this explains why, over the past few days, she has directed her fire at Feiglin, calling him a “danger to the right-wing bloc.”

While the New Right is having problems taking off, and Zehut soars, the colleagues that Bennett and Shaked abandoned in HaBayit HaYehudi are all smiles. At first, it appeared that they would not even pass the electoral threshold, but the Union of Rightwing Parties, of which they are now a part, has saved them from oblivion. A Channel 13 poll has the union winning seven seats.

While the polls show the New Right passing the electoral threshold of four Knesset seats, it is not by much. Their estimated five seats will not get them the defense and justice portfolios or even one of them. Meanwhile, Netanyahu is watching the New Right with mixed feelings. On the one hand, he would be delighted if Bennett and Shaked suddenly disappeared from his life, but on the other hand, if they fail to pass the electoral threshold, his chance of retaining the premiership diminishes. A right-wing party failing to pass the vote threshold means fewer people to recommend him to the president to form the next government. At this stage, many of the polls show Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beitenu failing to pass the threshold and Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu teetering on the verge of passing.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu is in a neck-and-neck race against the Blue and White party of Benny Gantz. He wants to win more votes than Gantz, but he also realizes that if the Likud wins more seats than currently predicted, they will come at the expense of the other right-wing parties and therefore be damaging to him. Bennett and Shaked are concerned that in the final days leading up to the election, Netanyahu will gobble up their seats if need be. Actually, the possibility terrifies them, because that is exactly what happened to them in the 2015 election.

At that time Netanyahu needed seats, so he warned right-wing voters, “The government of the right is in jeopardy.” If they did not vote for the Likud, he said, the left would take power. It worked. HaBayit HaYehudi lost four seats, but that was not the end of it. Netanyahu later tried to keep them out of his government, only bringing them in when he had no other choice. Both Bennett and Shaked have been squabbling with Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, as far back as the days when Netanyahu was chairman of the opposition, and they served as his advisers.

Luckily for Bennett and Shaked, Netanyahu needs them again if he is going to be reelected. That is why he will do what he can to ensure that they do not get too big, but he will not deliver the deathblow either. Feiglin is doing that for him anyway.

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Found in: Israeli elections

Mazal Mualem is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse and formerly the senior political correspondent for Maariv and Haaretz. She also presents a weekly TV show covering social issues on the Knesset channel. On Twitter: @mazalm3

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