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Bennett Sacrificing Success at the Ballot for Control of His Party

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Naftali Bennett speaking at the INSS conference. Tel Aviv, January 28, 2014.Credit: Moti Milrod

The decision of Tekuma’s Central Committee to join with Habayit Hayehudi in the upcoming elections has not decided the political battle that the latter’s chairman, Naftali Bennett, and the former’s, Uri Ariel, have been waging for the past two years.

While the disagreement is supposedly about Tekuma’s representation in the elections, the actual issue is much deeper. Bennett wants to erase Tekuma and integrate it into Habayit Hayehudi, which would entrench his autocracy over the religious Zionist party in preparation for a future bid for the premiership. Ariel wants to continue doing what he has been doing for years, with impressive political skill: using a platform of 60,000 national-Zionist Haredim as a base for political power.

Using this platform, he extracts more and more funds for the most pampered sector in the country: the hesder yeshivas, the small, religiously observant groups that establish new communities, the religious academies and so on. Tekuma has never run on its own in Knesset elections, and even after the current round it is alive and kicking, and will continue to be a political force.

The immediate significance of the decision is the weakening of Tekuma within Habayit Hayehudi. The next Knesset will be much friendlier to Bennett. Instead of four slots out of 12 on the Knesset list, Tekuma goes down to four out of 18. In a reasonable scenario of 15 to 16 seats, Tekuma will have only three. Yoni Chetboun, Bennett’s bitter rival, has already left. In addition, Ariel promised not to vote in the government against the faction’s decision, and it was agreed that he will no longer be able to challenge laws; only Bennett will be able to do that.

Also, the rabbis’ power in the parties is shrinking. Rabbis Dov Lior and Elyakim Levanon have already announced that they will support right-wing Shas renegade Eli Yishai, and many members of the Haredi national-Zionist community are expected to follow in their footsteps. Supposedly, Bennett bought a pig in a poke here. He paid for the Knesset members, but did not get all the votes. But at the bottom line, it is doubtful whether Bennett is disappointed. If there is anything he is allergic to, it is rabbis’ interference in politics. The more rabbis who quit, the happier Bennett will be.

Now people are focusing on the party primaries that will be held on January 14. A new name was thrown into the ring yesterday: that of Professor Asher Cohen, who wishes to represent the “religious-lite” population. In the competition for the 10th spot, which is reserved for a member of the Central Committee, Nir Orbach, the party’s director-general and a Bennett loyalist, announced that he would run.

The battle over realistic spots on the Knesset list is close indeed, as Deputy Minister Eli Ben Dahan, who came from Tekuma, joins the existing Knesset members, as do strong candidates whom the chairman supports, such as Danny Dayan, Ronen Shoval and Rabbi Avichai Rontzki. The wild card could be the Muslim Zionist candidate, Annette Khasikya. Due to the promise of representation for women, the wave of enthusiasm could carry her to the 12th spot on the list, after Ayelet Shaked and Shuli Moalem.

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