Changes to Habayit Hayehudi Charter Anger Many Party Members, MKs

Naftali Bennett, hoping to broaden the party's appeal before the next general election, has reportedly alienated his party's religious Zionist members.

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Naftali Bennett speaking at the Knesset.Credit: Emil Salman

The central committee of Habayit Hayehudi is expected to approve on September 10 a new constitution drawn up by the party chairman, Economy and Religious Services Minister Naftali Bennett. The aim of the changes is to broaden the party’s appeal and position it as a contender to form the government after the next general election.

The latest public opinion polls, held after the end of Operation Protective Edge, gave the party between 17 and 19 seats if the elections were held the day of the survey, making it the second-biggest party in the Knesset. Habayit Hayehudi has 12 Knesset members today, up from three in the previous election, the party’s first, and it is an important force in the legislature.

But the new constitution has angered many party members and MKs, including former representatives from the defunct National Religious Party, who say Bennett is blurring the party’s religious Zionist character in order to turn it into a more inclusive right-wing party.

“Bennett wants to turn Habayit Hayehudi into a second Likud and attract secular right-wing voters,” MK Yoni Chetboun said yesterday. He is spearheading the protest against the new constitution among the party’s younger members.

“We’re not supposed to be a secular rightist party, even if it means we don’t get 30 Knesset seats. If we stick to the approach that we’re responsible for Israel’s religious and Zionist identity, the voters will come to us,” he said.

“Bennett intends to turn Habayit Hayehudi from a religious national party into a national religious party,” said a veteran party functionary who was speaking on condition of anonymity.

“The new constitution turns its back on symbols identified with religious Zionism and revokes the party’s total commitment to religious-national education, to the Bnei Akiva Movement or Hapoel Hamizrahi Movement,” he said. The new proposed constitution eliminates a fundamental principle of the party, stipulating that only observant Jews may apply for inclusion on the party slate.

“The old constitution called for the party to support the working man and promote socialist legislation that would ensure him a good life. The new constitution calls for a free economy with a safety net for living in dignity,” a party activist said, also speaking on condition of anonymity. “That’s a complete reversal. The demand to promote religious education has also disappeared,” he said.

Another party member told Haaretz, “there’s a feeling in the party that Bennett found a bankrupt company with three Knesset seats, bought it cheap and now he’s out to make an exit.”

“The battle over the constitution is a battle over Habayit Hayehudi’s identity. Will it turn into a secular party, like Bennett intends, or a religious one. An absolute majority of those who voted for Habayit Hayehudi supports a religious national party,” he added.

Chetboun warned against following Bennett blindly. “One-man parties collapse in the end, like Yosef Lapid’s party,” referring to the late father of Finance Minister Yair Lapid, who served in the Knesset from 1999 to 2006 and held cabinet posts, “Kadima and even Yesh Atid, which is now crashing in the surveys. On the other hand Labor and Likud, which hold primaries, have survived, despite the ups and downs over the years,” he said.

Chetboun is convinced that most party members object to the new constitution and called to make next week’s vote a secret ballot.

Bennett is expected to pass the constitution with a large majority in an open vote. A survey conducted by Mina Zemach finds that 71 percent of the party’s supporters are in favor of the new constitution.

Deputy Education Minister Avraham Wortzman yesterday dismissed Chetboun’s criticism.

“In the previous Knesset we had three seats, we changed the party to be for everyone and got 12 seats. It’s an extraordinary achievement. We opened the door to a great number of Israeli homes. We’re continuing to grow, we’re an alternative to the ruling party,” Wortzman said.

“There’s no doubt that Bennett has a lot to do with this achievement. With his personality he brought very many votes. The new constitution says the chairman will be voted by the party members and so will at least eight of the leading 10 on the list. Let’s give Bennett the possibility to choose two additional people for the list,” Wortzman said.

“The party is on the way to leading the government and we won’t return to the days of the three Knesset seats,” said another anonymous source within Habayit Hayehudi. The opponents propose a constitution that says that the party’s central committee will vote for half of the Knesset list. That will shatter the party and therefore is irrelevant.”