Israel Pulse

Israeli right-wing once again putty in Netanyahu's hands

Article Summary
Instead of heading a secular-religious list and attracting moderate right-wing voters, New Right leader Naftali Bennett finds himself at the head of a party that includes right-wing extremists.

On the night of Jan. 15, moments before the deadline to submit candidate lists for the 23rd Knesset, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu succeeded in forcing the three parties on the right – HaBayit HaYehudi, the New Right, and the National Union – to merge and form a single list that will support him through hell and high water. He managed it even though none of the parties wanted to take part in their own “shotgun wedding.” After all, they had run as a bloc, Yamina, in the September 2019 elections only to end their partnership as soon as the disappointing results came in.

To create the new Yamina, HaBayit HaYehudi reneged on an earlier accord with the far-right Otzma Yehudit. Though HaBayit HaYehudi Chairman Rabbi Rafi Peretz is hardly an experienced politician, he was well aware of the political significance of violating the agreement he had signed with Otzma Yehudit.

Meanwhile, Naftali Bennett may have wanted to distinguish himself from the hard right, but in the end, he succumbed to Netanyahu’s pressure, like he always does. What Bennett really wanted was to form a new list with his secular partner, Ayelet Shaked, that would appeal to religious and secular voters on the right without being tied hand and foot to the religious Zionist movement or subjected to the rulings of its rabbis. By joining the same list as Peretz and National Union leader Bezalel Smotrich, he is doing the exact opposite of what he had originally intended.

It is true that all the senior partners of the Yamina list are ardent supporters of annexing the occupied territories. Furthermore, they all consider their battle with the Supreme Court to be a holy war that will eventually allow them to advance their ideology on the Greater Land of Israel. The problem is Smotrich and Peretz. Given their benighted worldviews, they cannot help Bennett recruit new supporters. Not only does this make Bennett hard pressed to steal seats from the soft right, he will also have a hard time suppressing Netanyahu’s craving to steal votes from him and Yamina to increase the size and strength of the Likud.

Netanyahu has a proven track record when it comes to vote stealing from parties to the right of the Likud. What's really remarkable is that despite all of Bennett's political experience, not to mention all the blows he has sustained, he has yet to learn his lesson. In the 2015 election, for example, Netanyahu asked at the very last minute if he could attend a right-wing gathering in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square intended to boost support for Bennett's HaBayit HaYehudi. In the end, the gathering became a rally in support of Netanyahu. He fired up the crowd, swore his fealty to the principles of a Greater Land of Israel and the settlements, and stole at least four seats from the settler right. A survey conducted a week before the election predicted that HaBayit HaYehudi would win 13 seats, but when the votes were tallied, it walked away with just eight.

There have been two elections since, in April and September 2019, and Israelis are currently in the midst of a third. In each instance, Netanyahu has essentially done whatever he wanted with the parties to his right. On one occasion, Netanyahu forced HaBayit HaYehudi to run together with the far-right disciples of Rabbi Meir Kahane in Otzma Yehudit, while this time, when that no longer served his interests, he, as noted, pressured Peretz into violating the agreement he had signed with Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben-Gvir and to instead join forces with Bennett. In each case, the leaders of the right-wing parties were like putty in Netanyahu's hands.

When Netanyahu called an emergency meeting in his office in the final hours before the deadline to submit party lists, he not only invited the partners soon to be wed, but also summoned two rabbis, Haim Druckman and Eitan Eisman, and the director general of HaBayit HaYehudi, Nir Orbach. His goal was to relay the sense of a real emergency and to convince Peretz to renege on his agreement with Otzma Yehudit after Bennett had refused to run on the same list with the Kahanists under any circumstances. In a Facebook post earlier that day, Bennett explained the grounds for his refusal: “As chairman of the New Right party and a former minister of education, I will not allow my list to include someone who displays a picture in his living room of a man who murdered 29 innocent people.” Bennett was referring, of course, to the picture of the mass murderer Baruch Goldstein that hangs in Ben-Gvir’s living room.

It seemed as if Bennett would do whatever he could to prove to voters on the right that he offers a sane alternative. Even when Netanyahu more than insinuated that if Bennett prevented the right-wing parties from forming a single list, he would be fired as defense minister, Bennett still rejected uniting his party with Otzma Yehudit. It was only after Netanyahu realized that Bennett couldn’t be moved that he marked Peretz, a political novice, as a target that could be manipulated more easily. Peretz succumbed, though in doing so he most likely ended his brief political career. He was left without supporters or a base on a list where Bennett and Smotrich are more firmly entrenched than he ever was or will be.

Peretz posted on Facebook, “I decided to run as part of a single, joint list in order to rescue all of Israel from a left-wing government, which would destroy any markers of Jewish identity for the Jewish people and which would negotiate with the supporters of terrorism.” Feeling bad about abandoning Otzma Yehudit, he went on to apologize to “my friend Itamar Ben-Gvir.” Meanwhile, Bennett was jubilant over what he considered a “major achievement.” What he failed to absorb was that Netanyahu had just determined his fate and bound Bennett and his list to his own personal interests.

It was only in November that Bennett became defense minister, a position he had long coveted. It only came about, however, after he signaled to Netanyahu that he was prepared to throw in his lot with Benny Gantz’s Blue and White. It is entirely possible that Bennett had no plans to follow through on the matter, but Netanyahu took the threat seriously. Bennett, having no assurance that he would continue in his current position after the March 2 elections, planned to use the New Right to siphon voters from the soft right and hold the balance of power. That way, both the Likud and the Blue and White would have to court him. By joining forces with Peretz and Smotrich, Bennett effectively buried the idea of a joint secular-religious party on the Zionist right. Meanwhile, Netanyahu managed to thwart even the thought of Bennett joining forces with Gantz, turning Yamina into a nationalist-religious party that could never become a part of the Blue and White. Once again, Bennett turned to putty in Netanyahu's hands.

On Jan. 20, Netanyahu appointed new ministers for portfolios he had been holding. He did so as a matter of law, because the indictments against him prevent him from continuing to occupy those positions. As would only be expected, he selected appointees on the basis of their loyalty to him, regardless of their position on the Likud list. Thus, Tzachi Hanegbi (15th on the party list) now heads the Ministry of Agriculture, while the Ministry of Labor and Welfare went to Ofir Akunis (16th), and Tzipi Hotovely (18th) became minister for diaspora affairs. Earlier promotions included Amir Ohana (21st) as justice minister and David Amsalem (19th) as communications minister. In other words, the Likud has long since been transformed from a party with a distinct ideology and ideas into a party that serves a single man.

Now a new party has been formed with the same goal of serving and supporting Netanyahu. It is Yamina and is headed by Bennett. Netanyahu can disparage and threaten Bennett all he wants. He can even insult Bennett’s wife. All Bennett can do is respond, “Amen.”

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Found in: Israeli elections

Shlomi Eldar is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. For the past two decades, he has covered the Palestinian Authority and especially the Gaza Strip for Israel’s Channels 1 and 10, reporting on the emergence of Hamas. In 2007, he was awarded the Sokolov Prize, Israel’s most important media award, for this work.

Eldar has published two books: "Eyeless in Gaza" (2005), which anticipated the Hamas victory in the subsequent Palestinian elections, and "Getting to Know Hamas" (2012), which won the Yitzhak Sadeh Prize for Military Literature. He was awarded the Ophir Prize (Israeli Oscar) twice for his documentary films: "Precious Life" (2010) and "Foreign Land" (2018). "Precious Life" was also shortlisted for an Oscar and was broadcast on HBO. He has a master's degree in Middle East studies from the Hebrew University. On Twitter: @shlomieldar

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