The Downfall of Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked

After splitting from Habayit Hayehudi, the two superstars were never forgiven for leaving their activists behind

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and Education Naftali Bennett announce the formation of their new political party during a press conference in Tel Aviv, Israel, December 29, 2018.
AFP

At the end of 2018 and the day after the dramatic press conference of Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked in which they announced they were leaving Habayit Hayehudi and founding their new Hayamin Hehadash party, opinion polls predicted 14 Knesset seats for the new party.

This optimistic forecast from the Makor Rishon website and Kan public broadcaster never repeated itself, but it clearly reflected the atmosphere at the time. Bennett and Shaked began with a confident foot forward, convinced they were at the peak of their political power.

Bennett entered the political arena as a hero after making a successful high-tech exit. He was a veteran of the elite Sayaret Matkal commando unit who offered a bright and shiny alternative to the old-time wheeler-dealers of the National Religious Party and the growing extremist trend of the right wing of the religious Zionist movement.

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Wearing a small kippah and beardless, he offered liberal and bourgeois religiosity alongside a concrete right-wing ideology, but one that you could live with in peace in the well-off suburbs of Ra’anana. He had worked in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office, served as the director general of the Yesha Council of settlements in the West Bank and in 2012 he won the primary election to lead Habayit Hayehudi. Ayelet Shaked ran in the same party primary too, securing the third spot on the slate.

“After the victory over Zvulun Orlev [in the primary], Bennett came to the Bnei Akiva [religious youth movement] convention and was received by a crowd of thousands with applause that the leading rock star in Israel couldn’t even get,” says public relations executive Eitan Zeliger in retrospect. “He was a superstar on a level that the religious Zionist movement had never seen before.”

The superstar also delivered the goods: In the 2013 Knesset election, Habayit Hayehudi – running together with the National Union-Tekuma parties – won 12 Knesset seats, four times the number they had in the previous Knesset. The enthusiasm began to fade away during the 2015 election campaign, with Habayit Hayehudi receiving eventually only 8 Knesset seats. Bennett was appointed education minister, and he chose to focus on a goal with measurable results: Doubling the number of students who take the highest level of high school math (5-points on the matriculation exams).

Shaked, as justice minister, branded herself as the leader of the conservative revolution in the judicial system. “When Bennett and Shaked assumed their new roles, Bennett was sure that they were presenting an alternative to the sane right-wing public that was sick and tired of Netanyahu. Very quickly he discovered what their followers should have already known: He was no longer the same great hope of 2013,” says Zeliger.

A profile of Bennett, published in Haaretz Magazine in January 2013, presented him and Shaked as the “power couple” of the Israeli right. Shaked’s loyalty seems to be what led her in Bennett’s footsteps. “She had nothing to profit from the move,” said Zeliger. “Before they left Habayit Hayehudi, it was clear that at the very least she would be appointed justice minister to yet another term. The split from Habayit Hayehudi could not have brought her any farther than that point. If she had stayed, she could have been crowned as the head of Habayit Hayehudi.”

The original sin

Many think that leaving Habayit Hayehudi is what led to Bennett and Shaked’s fall. “This was the original sin,” said a politician involved in the matter. “The religious community responded harshly to their scheme,” explains Yehuda Ben-Meir, who has served as a Knesset member for the National Religious Party and today is a senior fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies. “To leave a party you headed, that compromised for you, and then to get up and leave?”

Bennet and Shaked “went off on their own without almost any prior preparation, they didn’t bring with them people in the field and activists,” says the politician involved in the details.

"They overestimated the loyalty of the religious Zionist community. As opposed to Shas voters and the older generation of voters for Avigdor Lieberman, the religious community no longer sees itself as a single group," says Ben-Meir.

“The religious public is involved in Israeli society in every way, and accordingly finds its place in the parties of the general public: Likud, Kahol Lavan and also Labor and Meretz.” They are no longer obligated to just the religious sector, Ben-Meir explains.

Prof. Asher Cohen of Bar-Ilan University, who studies the religious Zionist movement, says that religious Zionism has not been represented by the sectoral parties for a long time. “Numerically, religious Zionism has at least 11 Knesset seats, and most of these votes are part of Likud. After this election, everyone will need to recalculate their route, even the conservative wing of the Union of Right-Wing Parties. They too are teetering on the brink of the electoral threshold,” said Cohen.

The nonreligious did not rush in droves

It would seem that Bennett’s home team would be the liberal religious community, for whom the present slate of the Union of Right-Wing Parties was too conservative and too religious. “But Bennett and Shaked did not make their message clear and did not present the election as a battle between two teams, the liberals and the extremists," Zeliger said.

“There was no difference of right and left between the Union of Right-Wing Parties and Hayamin Hehadash,” said Cohen about the battle between the two parties. “The difference is on the cultural-religious level. One party is leaning in the nationalist-Haredi direction, while the other is leading a more open liberal religious line,” he added. “It turns out that both alternatives, the liberal and the conservative, don’t attract a lot of votes.”

Instead of trying to appeal to religious liberal voters, Hayamin Hehadash chose to present hawkish positions, which was a mistake, according to Ben-Meir. “The Israeli public, even the right, is not in a hurry to go to war,” he says. “Netanyahu succeeded because he is seen as someone who is in no rush to launch a military campaign. Bennett’s boasting about defense matters did not help him when push came to shove.”

Another failure of Hayamin Hehadash was on the issue of religion and state. The party promoted itself as representing both the religious and secular, but the nonreligious did not flock to it en masse. During the months of the election campaign, the party avoided presenting clear positions on matters of religion and the state, and the party platform related to these issues ambiguously.

Cohen, who expressed his own personal support for the party, says the nonreligious who nonetheless supported Bennett and Shaked, wound up voting for Netanyahu at the last minute. “I assume that Netanyahu’s Gevalt campaign had a stronger influence on them,” said Cohen.

Hayamin Hehadash was also affected by what was expected to be the surprise of the election campaign: Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut party, which also failed to pass the electoral threshold but had a major influence on the political picture. “Statements saying Feiglin stole votes from everyone is nonsense,” said Cohen.

“When we look at the polling stations in the centers of religious Zionism, we see percentages of votes for Feiglin that are twice as high and more than the national average of votes, which is true for the entire religious Zionist spectrum too.” As examples, Cohen cites the settlement of Eli in the West Bank, the religious kibbutz Ein Hanatziv in the north and a polling place in a liberal religious neighborhood in the central city of Modi’in. “Bennett and Shaked prepared for Netanyahu’s Gevalt campaign, but didn’t prepare for Feiglin’s success,” says Cohen.