About a month ago, with Blue and White leader Benny Gantz’s deadline to form a new government about to run out, it seemed as if a unity government was closer than ever. Representatives of Benny Gantz and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had almost completed an agreement, which included Netanyahu citing incapacity and resigning within a few months, mechanisms to make decisions with equal representation of both parties, the division of Cabinet portfolios (with defense and foreign affairs going to Blue and White) and various other agreements.
Though it wasn’t finalized, the overall impression was that a solution could be found for the issues where they disagreed. Then there was a turning point, coming mainly from Netanyahu. Suddenly, he set new conditions on a unity government and withdrew from prior agreements. According to one person involved in the negotiations, the Likud team was left feeling confused. Then, just a few days later, Netanyahu showed senior members of the Likud a series of new internal polls showing that if a third election was held, the right-wing bloc had a good chance of winning a majority of 61 seats, even without Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party.
In the first 2019 election, which took place in April, only 1,453 votes were missing to prevent the current political chaos. That was all the votes that the New Right party of Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked needed to pass the electoral threshold of four Knesset seats. Without them, Netanyahu and his right-wing ultra-Orthodox bloc had only 60 seats. Had the New Right entered the Knesset, Netanyahu could have formed another right-wing coalition to continue the policies of his outgoing government.
Before the election this past September, Shaked and Bennett formed a single right-wing party with two religious Zionist parties: HaBayit HaYehudi and the National Union. Yet even that did not help the right-wing ultra-Orthodox bloc, which dropped to just 55 seats.
Now, inspired by his polls, Netanyahu is back to the April election or, in other words, two right-wing religious and traditional parties running alongside the Likud and the ultra-Orthodox. The reason he wants this, is that he believes that this time both right-wing religious parties will pass the electoral threshold, enabling him to form a government.
The most recent polls in the media show that the New Right could win five to six seats. In previous elections, the Likud tried to appeal to voters from other parties on the right ("stealing’’ right-wing religious votes"). A more restrained Likud campaign in this election could certainly help Bennett and Shaked meet their target.
The polls also show that the merger of right-wing parties (HaBayit HaYehudi and the National Union), as well as Otzma Yehudit (which received 83,000 votes in the September election) will not pass the electoral threshold. On the other hand, Netanyahu’s polls show that if the first two parties (a HaBayit HaYehudi/National Union platform, and Otzma Yehudit) run together as a single list, they would have no problem passing the electoral threshold with five seats. Furthermore, such a merger with radical right Otzma Yehudit might push more moderate national religious voters to turn elsewhere. In fact, such a merger would help the New Right win more moderate voters from the religious Zionist camp, giving it as many as eight seats. If that happens, the right-wing ultra-Orthodox bloc has a reasonable chance of getting 61 seats or more. As one senior member of the Likud told Al-Monitor, that is the main motivation behind Netanyahu’s decision to reject the initiative to form a unity government. A right-wing government would help Netanyahu receive immunity from the Knesset, and postpone his trial until after he finishes serving as prime minister.
The problem is that Netanyahu’s people don’t trust the leaders of the religious Zionist camp to reach an agreement between their Union of Right-Wing Parties and Otzma Yehudit to consolidate their forces on their own. That is why Netanyahu already sent emissaries to check with the chairmen of HaBayit HaYehudi and the National Union, Rafi Peretz and Bezalel Smotrich, respectively, to see if this was feasible. At the meeting, the two men were shown the internal polls, which indicated that if they run without Otzma Yehudit, they are unlikely to pass the electoral threshold. Apparently, the two men will conduct polls of their own over the next few weeks before making their decision.
One reason why they are hesitating is the price being demanded by the head of Otzma Yehudit, Itamar Ben Gvir. On Dec. 11, the day before the Knesset was dissolved, Ben Gvir was quick to tweet, “Today, everybody realizes that without Otzma Yehudit, there will not be a right-wing government.” He then went on to call for quick negotiations to form a united right-wing religious list. In exchange for his participation in such a merger, he is demanding the third place on the list, right after Peretz and Smotrich, and another seat in the list’s top six. When right-wing Yamina refused to give him anything below the eighth-place slot last summer, he decided to run alone. While his party did not enter the Knesset, it won enough votes for two seats, giving Ben Gvir a strong bargaining position.
The New Right is pleased with the polls so far, but they still remember that the polls were also flattering to them right before April’s election. Back then, they blamed their defeat on the fact that the party ran with two leaders, Bennett and Shaked, and that its messaging wasn’t clear enough. This is one of the reasons why Shaked is expressing reservations now. The former justice minister is a political figure with a reputation for being a leader. The religious community even made her the head of their party in September’s election despite the opposition of certain rabbis.
The party is now faced with two options. The first is joining Peretz and Smotrich in the Union of Right-Wing Parties. The problem with that is they would have to take into account the possibility of the extremist Otzma Yehudit party also joining the union, which is problematic since its most senior members are disciples of nationalist Rabbi Meir Kahane. Shaked actually has a good relationship with Ben Gvir, the only one of the party’s leaders whom the Supreme Court has not disqualified from running for the Knesset. In the summer leading up to the September election, she even supported the idea of Otzma Yehudit joining the Yamina party. Shaked is now facing considerable pressure not to join forces with Bennett again, and instead to help the religious Zionist list pass the electoral threshold.
The second option, which she seems to prefer, is to run with Bennett as part of the New Right in an overall strategy to merge this party with the Likud once the Netanyahu era is over. After all, Likud is the party where both she and Bennett began their careers. Over the last few months, there have been calls within the Likud to bring the two of them back in the fold. Meanwhile, the prime minister is doing everything he can to get reelected so he can form a right-wing ultra-Orthodox coalition. If he succeeds, it will take another term for Bennett and Shaked to rejoin the Likud.
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