Election disappointment. But can Naftali Bennett bounce back?
Election disappointment. But can Naftali Bennett bounce back? Flash 90

Where did it go wrong for the Jewish Home party?

It seems like a distant memory now, a memory that's almost hard to believe given the drubbing the party received during the elections, but there was a point at which the Jewish Home was almost touching the 20-MK mark in the polls. Early on in the election campaign, a bad day meant polling at 15 seats (up from the 12 it received in the previous elections), and some within the party were already dreaming of the day they would make history, perhaps as early as the following elections: a religious-Zionist party leading the Israeli government for the first time.

In the meantime, party officials were confident their leader Naftali Bennett would receive one of the two most highly-coveted positions after the prime ministership in any Likud-led government: the defense or foreign ministries. Binyamin Netanyahu's (broken) promise to reserve one of those spots for Bennett seemed to seal the deal, but surely, as the third-largest party in the Knesset and right-wing kingmaker, refusing its demand for one of those two posts wouldn't be an option for the PM anyway.

Instead, the 20th Knesset sees a Jewish Home reduced to single figures (8 MKs), and party leader Naftali Bennett is currently fighting just to be included in the government, let alone receive such a senior position - although Netanyahu's alternatives to even a weakened Jewish Home to form a majority government aren't clear, which means Bennett still could extract significant concessions. Still, the contrast is stark.

So how did it happen? And will the party be able to recover from such a disappointment?

Speaking to Arutz Sheva, a senior Jewish Home party strategist has outlined the "series of mistakes" he believes are to blame for the election failure - and why he thinks that despite it all, in the long run the party can emerge even stronger than before.

Rabbi Daniel Tropper is a close confidante of Naftali Bennett, and one of the most influential figures in revolutionizing the party together with him - dragging it up from the verge of extinction after the 2009 elections, to receiving 12 seats in 2013. Among other things, Rabbi Tropper led the committee which successfully drafted and implemented a series of fundamental constitutional reforms within the party - reforms which he insists pave the way for it to lead the country regardless of the party's poor showing in last month's elections.

Rabbi Tropper is remarkably candid about where he believes his party fumbled its general election campaign, admitting that it - and specifically its leader Naftali Bennett - made a "series of mistakes".

Of course, none of the parties' campaigns were without the odd hiccup or gaff, but Rabbi Tropper identifies one key mistake in particular as contributing to the Jewish Home's poor showing. In trying to widen the party's appeal Bennett overreached, he says, and "attempted to appoint people that his voters felt did not belong in the party."

Although he was keen not to name names, the reference to the Eli Ohana fiasco is clear. Indeed, the shortlived candidacy of a soccer player with no political experience and - more importantly for some among the party's religious-Zionist base - whose entire career was built upon blatant Sabbath desecration, triggered an exodus of voters which the Jewish Home only partially succeeded in winning back.

Until then, Bennett had skillfully navigated between his party's rival factions, each of which had its own "reservations" about certain aspects of the campaign or party policies. But the Ohana fiasco "opened the lid for people to move from expressing reservations, to downright opposition," says Tropper.

However, while not shy of criticizing his own party, Rabbi Tropper also insists that for it to succeed in the future, the religious-Zionist voting public at large must come to terms with two "terrible mistakes" it made at the very beginning and end of the campaign.

The first mistake was the decision by a number of influential religious-Zionist rabbis and their followers - particularly from the haredi-Zionist (hardal) Har Hamor Yeshiva - to defect from the Jewish Home to Eli Yishai's Yachad party. 

That decision early on in the campaign by a significant bloc of religious-Zionist voters to "break into two camps" constituted "a terrible mistake," he says. 

"Those in Har Hamor who decided to oppose the Jewish Home and support Eli Yishai may have felt they had legitimate objections to Naftali Bennett's policies, but in practice their decision to split was catastrophic," Rabbi Tropper lamented.

"Not only did it undermine the power of the Jewish Home, but those votes totally went to waste" when, despite the hype surrounding the new party, and despite it running on a joint list with the Otzma Yehudit faction, Yachad failed to cross the electoral threshold into the 20th Knesset.

However, he acknowledged that the damage wrought by the split of a minority of former Jewish Home voters - perhaps 1-2 seats-worth - pales in comparison to the events of the final week of the campaign, when Netanyahu turned his guns on his "natural partners" to push his own party ahead of the Zionist Union.

That appeal to nationalist voters to abandon the Jewish Home for the Likud, ostensibly to prevent the establishment of a left-wing government, became known as the "gevalt" campaign - and Rabbi Tropper admits his party was totally outmaneuvered by the wily Likud leader.

"In the last week of the elections there was a tremendous defection of voters from the Jewish Home to Likud, because Netanyahu came up with a brilliant message to voters: Herzog and me are neck-and-neck - if you don't vote for me you will get a left-wing government!" he explained, referring to Zionist Union head Yitzhak Herzog.

The Jewish home simply wasn't assertive enough in pushing back against that campaign, he admits.

"I think the Jewish Home underestimated the power of that argument," he observed, claiming the party "didn't broadcast an effective message against it."

But the voters themselves made a serious error in blindly believing the prime minister's "warning", which was based on a total fallacy: that the largest party is the one which automatically forms a government.

In actuality, in Israel's proportional representation system, where no single party ever receives an overall majority, it is the party which receives the most "endorsements" from other parties which then forms a coalition with them - and in practice it is not always the largest party which does so. In fact, Netanyahu himself did just that in 2009, when despite Likud coming second to Kadima it was Bibi who formed the government, after Kadima was unable to garner enough support to cobble together a coalition.

"Religious-Zionist voters made mistake - that's not how coalition politics work. Particularly the young ones, who aren't well-versed in coalition politics, fell for it," said Rabbi Tropper.

"What they didn't realize is that, had they stuck with their preferred party [the Jewish Home], they would have had the best of both worlds: a Likud-led government with a strong, well-placed and influential Jewish Home."

Looking to the future

Yet despite the disappointment, Rabbi Tropper maintains March's elections represent nothing more than a temporary setback, and that Naftali Bennett is still the man to lead the party - and eventually the State of Israel.

"Now it's time to lick our wounds, understand what we did wrong, and look to the future," he states. "I still believe there is a great future, a true leadership position for the Jewish Home."

Intriguingly, he sees Bennett's current actions in coalition talks as evidence of that. The fact that he is not backing down from demanding a senior portfolio as a precondition to joining the government proves he remains unfazed, and is still fully focused on maintaining the party's long-term trajectory towards a leadership position.

If anything, "Naftali's insistence on receiving the foreign or defense ministry has become even more important for him now, because he wants to build the Jewish Home as a leadership party," he says.

"The only way to keep it looking like that after going down from 12 seats to 8 is by getting a major ministry like that. That's what I think is happening. And there's a legitimacy to that argument.

"He's a very focused leader. He understands: Particularly now that I went down I have to show that we're heading for leadership."

For that reason, Rabbi Tropper thinks Bennett and his negotiating team aren't bluffing when they say they are willing to sit in the opposition rather than be shunted into a junior position inside the government.

"This is not an issue of honor or power, but of keeping yourself focused on your target and showing your voters that 'yes we can get there,'" he insists. "Even though he lost terribly you don't see him in a defensive position. He's playing the game as if he won - that takes a true leader."

Looking at the larger picture, Rabbi Tropper sees his party's setback as a potential opportunity - if it plays its cards right - and remains convinced that placing a religious-Zionist party at the helm of the Israeli government is a matter of national necessity.

"I really believe that the religious-Zionist community is critical for the future of Israel. We represent an ideology and the kind of dedication that Israel needs not only to be strong but for its very survival."

But if that is to happen, he says it's time for the religious-Zionist community to mature into a political force to be reckoned with in its own right, instead of settling for mere "influence," either as a junior partner in government or via individual religious MKs scattered throughout various different parties.

Such a strong ideological front is crucial to protecting Israel from the growing surge of apathy and "post-Zionism" among certain elements of Israeli society, which if left unchecked will ultimately erode the country's collective will - and thereby ability - to withstand the many enemies and challenges it faces.

"Remember - if you're a post-Zionist, a post-Jew, then what in the world are you giving your life for in this country? It's as simple as that!" Religious-Zionism, with its strong ideological commitment to Israel and Jewish values, is the perfect antidote, he insists - but only if it can assert itself effectively.

The major challenge the Jewish Home party faces now is to communicate that message to its disparate factions and potential voter bases - from the hardal camp to those straddling the fence with Likud.

"Those who went with Yishai just didn't get it," he laments of the former. The hardal rabbis who defected to Yachad are "great ideologists and talmidei chachamim (Torah scholars)," he emphasizes, "but being a talmid chacham doesn't make you a political strategist."

"The rabbis need to show a little modesty. To understand that perhaps they know Bava Kamma [a complex tractate in the Babylonian Talmud - ed.] better than they understand politics."

As much as "they wouldn't invite Bennett to give a shiur (lecture) on Bava Kamma to their yeshiva," he urged religious-Zionist rabbis to give the political leadership room to maneuver in their own field of expertise.

Despite that, he insists the rabbinic leadership does of course have "a critical role to play: the ideological element. They need to keep the ideology of the party on high-tension, all the time" - but a distinction needs to be made between "issuing advice and issuing instructions." Such an arrangement is crucial if for no other reason than the fact that rabbis will always disagree with each other on a wide range of issues - including what should be considered "the most important" issue of the day.

"One rabbi thinks the conversion issue is the most important, another the undue influence of the High Court. And on the conversion issue for example, there are legitimate arguments both ways! How do you decide? Do they want Bennett to be their posek hador [ultimate arbitrator of Jewish law - ed.]?"

A politician, on the other hand, "can't afford to divorce one specific issue from the wider political map. If he pushes for everything he will get nothing, so he needs to prioritize and say 'OK, I want these 6 things, but realistically I can only get points 2, 3 and 4 - so that's what I'll go for.'"

For things to progress, the rabbinic leadership needs to understand that "for unity, you pay a price - but it's worth it."

"There's a tremendous complexity here, and yes we'll make mistakes along the way, but we're moving in the right direction and that's what counts."

Bennett, too, needs to do better in addressing the genuine issues raised by dissenting voices, rabbinic or otherwise - a lesson Rabbi Tropper believes he has indeed learned (perhaps the hard way) during the past several months.

In fact, Rabbi Tropper thinks Bennett's latest "setback" may even be beneficial for him and for the Jewish Home in the long-term.

"If we step back and look at it from a historical point of view, I think what happened now may be extremely important for the party's development."

While "incredibly talented, and definitely, I believe, someone who could lead Israel in the future," Naftali Bennett is still relatively inexperienced, he notes, having only debuted as both an MK and party head two short years ago. "Maybe he needed a setback like this to bring about a new kind of thinking."

"He has to set up a group of advisers, but one that represents the whole religious-Zionist community, stretched out as wide out as possible, including also sympathetic chilonim (secular Israelis) and the 'simple Jews' of the development towns. He needs as broad an input as possible."

"The main issue is what kind of country are we going to have here," and to successfully shape the character of the country, religious-Zionism "has to build up a central unit to represent us that's going to be big."

"We can't be in pieces - if you're in pieces you can't have the same power."​

That message is even more relevant to those would-be voters who, while identifying with the Jewish Home ideologically, have repeatedly chosen in practice to vote for other parties for "pragmatic" reasons.

"Some people make this argument that we're up to about 25/26 people wearing kippot in the Knesset. Every political party now has an MK with a kippa on his head.

"But if those 25 people were in one party we'd control the government!

"There are so many kippot in the Knesset - but separated their power is completely watered down. What we need is unity."

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