The  Bennett-Shaked bombshell
The Bennett-Shaked bombshell

On Satuday evening, Jewish Home leader MK Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked announced in a bombshell announcement that they would be abandoning the Jewish Home to create a new right-wing party.

During an explosive press conference, Bennett said that the right-wing couldn’t move forward while remaining in the old Religious Zionist framework.

"The Jewish Home has become a very influential force in the State of Israel, but in the last year and even more so in recent months, this era of our great influence has ended," said Bennett. "Prime Minister Netanyahu understood that the wonderful Religious Zionism sits in his pocket, that no matter how often he betrays them, they will remain with him [for lack of an alternative]."

The only thing that is surprising about this announcement is that people are surprised. Ever since Bennett came out of nowhere to take over the Jewish Home in 2012, he and Shaked have been diametrically at odds with the faction’s rank and file.

It’s important to underline that Bennett and Shaked had never intended to join the Jewish Home at all. Bennett, a successful high-tech millionaire and former special-forces officer, had originally announced in 2012 that he would start a new party “to unify Religious Zionism with the secular nationalist camp and create a new dialogue to be a significant counterbalance to Netanyahu.”  

The emphasis on “unifying Religious Zionists with the secular nationalist camp” is important. Bennett, who is married to a secular woman and abandoned religious observance in the army only to return to it later, had wanted to launch a faction together with the secular Shaked that would provide something new on Israel’s political scene.

Bennett and Shaked were forced to jettison their original plans, however, after getting hit with a massive backlash from the Religious Zionist community that was fed up with the plurality of parties that fought over ideological purity and barely passed the electoral threshhold, if they did so at all.

“The last thing the Religious Zionist community needs right now is more division,” National Union head Yaakov “Ketzaleh” Katz had declared. “It’s a shame to see thousands of votes being thrown away.”

Stung by the criticism, Bennett and Shaked decided to take over the Jewish Home party, which was scraping the electoral threshold under the leadership of uninspiring political novice Rabbi Professor Daniel Hershkowitz. And so it was. Bennett defeated then Jewish Home MK Zevulun Orlev to take over the Jewish Home and tripled the party's electoral showing a year later.

Yet the original dream of creating a large religious-secular coalition never died, causing Bennett to spend the next five years dealing with internal power struggles. As the years passed, criticism of Bennett from parts of the Religious Zionist community mounted. Bennett was too friendly to the Reform and Conservative movements. He was too friendly to the LGBT community. He refused to criticize the IDF for its efforts to expand combat roles to female soldiers, which are putting religious male soldiers in impossible situations halakhically.

Matters came to a head in the 2015 elections when Bennett nominated secular soccer player Eli Ohana to the Jewish Home. The inclusion of Ohana, a symbol of Israel’s Shabbat desecrating-soccer league and a supporter of the Gaza disengagement, was intended to appeal to the traditional Mizrahi voters that make up Likud’s electoral base. Bennett, however, did not foresee the backlash that such a move would cause.

The Religious Zionist rank and file were furious. The observant media crucified him. Rabbi Eli Sadan, a senior Religious Zionist rabbi who founded the pre-military academy movement, threatened to “go from village to village to tell them not to vote for Bennett” unless Ohana’s nomination was dropped. 48 hours later, Bennett was forced to withdraw Ohana’s candidacy in a humiliating move that highlighted his lack of support.

A few months later, Bennett watched helplessly as Netanyahu took at least four Knesset seats from the Jewish Home on the way to racking up 30 seats by claiming that Israeli Arabs were coming to vote in droves. With eight seats, the Jewish Home’s electoral position was particularly painful given that Yahad, a break-off party comprised of members of the more religiously stringent Religious Zionist community, narrowly failed to cross the electoral threshold yet caused three Knesset seats that would have otherwise gone to Bennett to disappear.

The bottom line is that Bennett was never a proper fit for the Jewish Home, a party that traditionally advocated for the ideology and sectoral needs of the Religious Zionist community. Bennett always made it clear that he wants to be Israel’s next prime minister.

As he constantly recounted, he decided to enter politics after witnessing the IDF’s abysmal performance in the Second Lebanon War and decided that the country was in need of a dramatic change of direction. Bennett’s goal is to reach the top. No matter how many secular candidates Bennett packed the Jewish Home with, he was never going to rise above 12 Knesset seats while heading a party associated with Religious Zionism.

As any political consultant will attest, one can only rise to the top of the political scene if he can successfully represent a diverse cross section of the population. Bennett’s aspirations for Israel’s top job were always destined for failure in a faction that objected to a candidacy of someone like Ohana.

This point of view was articulated by non-other than MK Bezalel Smotrich, the Jewish Home lawmaker who has tangled repeatedly with Bennett over the last few years. "It was a logical move by Bennett and Shaked," said Smotrich. "From the moment they entered politics they did not come to lead Religious Zionism. They set a much higher goal for themselves, and it took them time to understand that this was not going to happen from within this platform."

Bennett faced the exact same issues when he was director general of the Council of Judea and Samaria, where he wanted to appeal to secular Israelis and battle Netanyahu while the Council wanted to work with the prime minister.

The new arrangement is beneficial for both sides. Bennett can pursue his dream of replacing Netanyahu while the Jewish Home can earn a respite from the endless power struggles it has suffered from in recent years and focus on advocating for the ideology and needs of the Religious Zionist community. 

With Bennett and Shaked gone, the Jewish Home now faces a quandary over how to proceed. With Bezalel Smotrich expected to take control post-Bennett, it can revert to being a strictly sectoral party or it can attempt to compete with Bennett’s new list. Either way, concrete steps are needed and quickly to avoid a bloodbath on April 9th. As Bennett’s slogan went in 2013, “Something new is beginning”.