The two leaders of Habayit Hayehudi said Saturday they were quitting their right-wing party to form a new outfit that would attract both secular and religious voters in the April 9 election.
At a press conference in Tel Aviv, Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said they would co-chair the new party, Hayamin Hehadash, or the New Right. It would include both religious and secular members.
Bennett said that Habayit Hayehudi was no longer able to influence policy and that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “realized that the religious-Zionist community is in his pocket, and no matter how much he abused them, at the end they will always go with him.”
In recent months, Habayit Hayehudi has suffered a rift over attempts by Bennett to change party regulations to increase his independence as chairman. His opponents in the party have taken him to Habayit Hayehudi’s internal court several times.
Since an early election for April 9 was called on Monday, party officials have remained vague about the date of the Habayit Hayehudi primary, with some speculating that Bennett had sought to call it off.
Polls published by three main television stations Tuesday predicted that Habayit Hayehudi in its then-make-up would win nine to 12 seats in the election, up from eight in the current Knesset.
Earlier Saturday, Habayit Hayehudi lawmaker Nissan Slomiansky told Haaretz that Bennett and Shaked had not disclosed the reason for the press conference. “We will hear [the news] together with the rest of the people of Israel,” he said.
Another Knesset member from the party, Shuli Moalem-Refaeli, said after the press conference that she was joining up with Bennett and Shaked. The two needed at least one more MK to leave the party so they could obtain campaign funding from the state.
Habayit Hayehudi is a religious-Zionist party formed by a merger in 2013 of the National Religious Party, also known as Mafdal, and Tkuma, an ultra nationalist religious party. In the previous Knesset, four of Habayit Hayehudi’s 12 MKs were Tkuma members.
But today Tkuma has only two, Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel and MK Bezalel Smotrich. In recent years, Tkuma has complained that it was underrepresented in the joint slate, and Bennett has disagreed with Tkuma many times.
Smotrich had announced that he would run for the Tkuma chairmanship in a January 14 primary. Bennett expected Smotrich to win that election, which would have moved him up the Habayit Hayehudi list to make him a candidate for a ministerial position in a future government.
Bennett feared such a scenario, which he believed would lead to an internecine struggle, and therefore preferred running separately from Tkuma.
Following reports of Bennett and Shaked’s expected announcement, Smotrich told the Israeli television program “Meet the Press” that Bennett and Shaked leaving Habayit Hayehudi was “an expected move that makes sense” because the two politicians “were taking aim at a much higher target – the premiership.”
Smotrich added that he would congratulate Bennett and Shaked for such a move, saying he would “take it upon myself to unite the religious-Zionist community. There will be such a party and I want it to be strong.”
Senior Habayit Hayehudi officials met Saturday overnight to discuss the steps ahead. One of the participants in the meeting, held at the home of prominent religious-Zionist Rabbi Haim Drukman in southern Israel, told Haaretz that most attendees, including the party's remaining lawmakers, were surprised by Bennet and Shaked's announcement and hadn't been told of it in advance.
He said the meeting concluded with an agreement between Habayit Hayehudi and Tkuma officials to carry on with a joint Knesset list. The participants favorably discussed joining forces with "other [political] religious-Zionist forces", but the party has yet to announce any formal decision.
Party director Nir Orbach, who congratulated Bennett and Shaked on their move, announced on Sunday the establishment of "a special team to accelerate the negotiations" with Tkuma officials, which would convene after both factions elect new leaders.
The split in Habayit Hayehudi may play into the hands of the far right, which might push for a union of politicians who together could win enough support to pass the electoral threshold.
A source in the far-right party Otzma Yehudit, formerly Otzma Leyisrael, which did not pass the electoral threshold in 2015 and 2013, told Haaretz that the party was interested in a joint Knesset bid with Tkuma members.
Otzma Yehudit is also negotiating with former minister Eli Yishai, who split from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party in 2014.
The far right seeks to secure Knesset seats with a possible union of ex-Habayit Hayehudi lawmakers, Tkuma, Otzma Yehudit and Yishai’s Yahad party. Another far-right party, Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut, is negotiating but is considered unlikely to join such a union.
After Bennett and Shaked’s announcement, Otzma Yehudit called on Smotrich and Yishai to join forces. “Naftali Bennett has massively disappointed us,” an Otzma Yehudit official said.
“The New Right has nothing new about it. Bennett’s attempt to shirk responsibility over a government that talked right-wing but walked left-wing is pathetic.”