Can Bennett Shake Israel's National-religious Old Guard Into a Modern New Party?

Like Lieberman and Lapid, Bennett's goal is to become prime minister. And he believes that to conquer this peak, he must be freed of the rusty chains and the religious, party-hack image of his rabbis and teachers.

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Naftali Bennett
Former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

The vote this afternoon by Habayit Hayehudi party functionaries to approve a new constitution is shaking up the national religious old guard. Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, the party leader, is working to moderate the old but still binding constitution of Habayit Hayehudi’s predecessor, the National Religious Party, and thereby help obscure from the public the many links between Habayit Hayehudi and religious Zionism, the purpose being to attract secular voters. He hopes to woo Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu supporters and turn the party into the Knesset’s second largest in the next election.

When Bennett appears today before the archaic, sleepy party organ still known as the National Religious Party Central Committee, he’ll need all the personal charm that made him an overnight political star to persuade its members that they have no alternative to him. He has to sell them on the idea that without him, it’s doubtful the NRP, in its incarnation as Habayit Hayehudi, would still even exist, and it’s yet more doubtful that its representatives would now be occupying key posts in the cabinet, Knesset and other government agencies.

About this, Bennett is right. His whirlwind entry into the post of party chairman two years ago breathed new life and brought new blood into an atrophied organ whose electorate was steadily declining. Fifteen Knesset seats soon followed, and with them, power and influence.

But sometimes, food simply whets the appetite. “Everyone wants to be the director general, the secretary-general, the police commissioner,” Arik Einstein once sang. In politics, everyone wants to be Avigdor Lieberman and Yair Lapid: modern-day dictators, sole rulers of their parties, whose word is instantly obeyed and who oust any dissenters. But unlike Lieberman and Lapid, who set up brand-new parties in their own image, Bennett took over an existing party with a distinguished past, one that operates under antiquated bylaws that don’t recognize comets like him.

This is the reality Bennett is seeking to change today. Like Lieberman and Lapid, he has set himself a goal: becoming prime minister. And he believes that to conquer this peak, he must be freed of the rusty chains and the religious, party-hack image of his rabbis and teachers and adopt the habits of a modern leader. Someone who is new, strong and innovative, who has broad powers, and who is capable of connecting with large segments of the public rather than only with religious Zionists and settlers, whose electoral wingspan is fairly limited.

Bennett’s ambitious maneuver has set him on a collision course with Uri Ariel, head of the far-right party Tekuma, which ran on a joint ticket with Habayit Hayehudi in the last election. The new bylaws being brought to a vote today demonstrate complete disregard for the bellyaching of Ariel and his party colleagues. They preserve a few of the old rules, but give Bennett a series of overarching powers.

If Bennett succeeds in passing the new bylaws, Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu and Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog will be left gnashing their teeth in jealousy. But if he fails in today’s central committee vote, it will be a resounding slap in the face that is liable to shake Habayit Hayehudi to its foundations.

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