Naftali Bennett never wanted to be the leader of a religious party. If 12 years ago, when he was chief of staff for the leader of the opposition, he had held his tongue, things could have been very different.
Instead, when his boss’ wife attacked him on the phone for not telling him where he was, he made the fateful mistake of answering “Mrs. Netanyahu. I work for your husband. Not for you.” If he had kept silent, he may have remained in the soon to become prime minister’s close circle and a Likud MK and cabinet minister. After all, that was his plan when he left high-tech to go in to politics.
After his contretemps with Sara Netanyahu, he was kicked out of the office, along with his confidant Ayelet Shaked. Four years later, with Shaked’s help, he ran in the primaries for the leadership of Habayit Hayehudi ("Jewish Home"), the re-branded venerable National Religious Party, which was sinking into political oblivion. Bennett took the party by storm, but even then, he didn’t want it to be a party just for religious people. His vision was of a new right-wing party, a cooler Likud, which would appeal to both religious and secular voters. And for a short while, Bennett’s vision worked and Habayit Hayehudi won 12 seats in the 2013 election.
Then two things happened. Within Habayit Hayehudi, the more devout members and especially the rabbis who had been previously used to a certain degree of influence over party affairs, began pushing back against the Bennett-Shaked duo. They were happy with secular voters, but didn’t want to cede any control. And Benjamin Netanyahu, who would never trust Bennett again, launched in the 2015 election his “cannibalization” campaign, targeting former Likudniks, both religious and secular, who had gone over to Habayit Hayehudi, and cutting the party back down to size.
Bennett and Shaked didn’t give up on their vision and at the end of 2018, left Habayit Hayehudi and formed the Hayamin Hehadash, as a joint religious-secular party, but failed this time to cross the electoral threshold. He and Shaked made it back to the Knesset in the subsequent elections of the past year, only by rejoining their erstwhile colleagues from Habayit Hayehudi. They never wanted to be part of a religious party – it was Netanyahu who forced it upon them.
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In his dealings with Bennett in the past week, Netanyahu offered him only ministerial portfolios “connected to religious-Zionism” Bennett, who got used over the last six months to the defense ministry, was rightly insulted. Without a doubt, Netanyahu was acting in a callous and ungrateful manner towards allies who had been totally loyal to him in past years and had refused even to meet with Benny Gantz when he had the mandate to form a government.
But Netanyahu is at least being consistent. He is treating Yamina, the latest evolution of Habayit Hayehudi, the same way he treats the other religious parties – the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism. He expects the national-religious party to know its place, be just like a Haredi party and focus mainly on their community’s narrow interests.
It’s not that Netanyahu has anything personal against the national-religious community. On the contrary, no other prime minister has appointed more members of the community to senior positions, both as civil servants and ministers. He and his wife believe that religious people are “more loyal.”
The new Netanyahu government which was due to be sworn-in on Thursday night but was postponed at the last minute to Sunday, is slated to include a record number of national-religious cabinet ministers. But they are all members of Likud and Kahol Lavan. Religious people as individuals are one thing. Religious parties are another. They have to know their place. And in this sense, Netanyahu is not wrong and is even doing the national-religious community a favor.
Why should there be religious parties? For the Haredi community, isolated from the rest of Israeli society and dependent on government handouts, political power is necessary to safeguard their autonomy. But most of the religious community is part of the mainstream. And most of them don’t even vote for religious parties. Bennett certainly didn’t want to.
Perhaps a third of the national-religious community, the more isolationist Haredi-Leumi, or nationalist-Haredi fringe, feel they need a party which will take care of their narrow interests. But the majority of religious Israeli are modern-orthodox and don’t feel they’re an endangered species whose rights need defending.
The leaders of Yamina are now saying that they will serve the public in opposition and prepare “for the day after Netanyahu,” but it is becoming increasingly clear that they have no future after Netanyahu. On the day when Netanyahu is no longer party leader, Bennett and Shaked will rush to sign up as Likud members and Yamina, or Jewish Home or whatever the next NRP evolution will be called, will be a small fundamentalist rump that will have to join up with the neo-Kahanists in an effort to pass the threshold.
Netanyahu has been trying for years to push the national-religious parties into obscurity. “We are the natural home for religious-Zionists,” he has said in numerous election rallies. And he’s not wrong. Likud may have been founded as a secular-liberal movement, but in its current form it represents the religious-nationalist community perfectly well.
It’s rare that Netanyahu can be given credit for bringing Israelis together. He usually thrives on division and polarization, but this is one thing he deserves praise for. Effectively eliminating the national-religious parties as a political force, will hopefully mean less small and special-interest parties in the future and that can only be a good thing.