Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked's dramatic announcement last night that they were leaving their party, Habayit Hayehudi, was bad news for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
While he was showing off his footballing skills on the beach in Rio di Janeiro and enjoying lunch in the shade of a tree at a restaurant with Brazilian music, Bennett and Shaked split the Israeli right.
The Likud has to deal with the collection of parties that makes up Habayit Hayehudi (Tekuma, National Union, the National Religious Party), possible losses of votes to Moshe Feiglin, Eli Yishai, and other potential right-wing groups, and now, within Netanyahu's own government, a new party has been spawned that that will gnaw away at the Likud's secular-right base that is the party's mainstay and that is also partly the province of Avigdor Liberman's Yisrael Beiteinu. Which of these parties will reach the minimum vote threshold for Knesset representation? That's a tough question.
In the 2015 election, Bennett and Shaked were careful not to give the impression that they wanted to expand within the right-wing electorate and hurt Likud. "Netanyahu is our candidate for prime minister' they said at the time, as they dug their nails into the left.
Their entire campaign targeted such left-wing figures as Yossi Yona, Stav Shaffir, and Merav Michaeli, as if that was really of any interest to their public. This time, to judge from Bennett's pointed text last night attacking Netanyahu's mendacious use of the security argument last month to deflect his ultimatum over the defense portfolio, it won't be so polite. It will be a gloves-off fight for every vote on the right.
Netanyahu may continue to lead a party with around 30 Knesset seats, but the fragmentation of the parties around him may well shift the center of gravity to the political middle, whether it's Benny Gantz or Yair Lapid, and at the very least a new distribution of seats could enable Bennett and Shaked to join up with centrist parties after the election in an attempt to bypass Likud.
What can be said with certainty is that what Bennett and Shaked did together yesterday was to join the "just not Bibi" faction. They are not ready to attack him publicly over the corruption allegations against him, but they were certainly prepared to accuse the prime minister of military feebleness in Gaza and of using security threats in the north in his personal campaign for the premiership.
The other thing that happened yesterday was that Bennett and Shaked tore the veil off the nationalist rabbis' control over them. The decision under pressure from the rabbis and the religious right to withdraw their ultimatum a month ago and stay in the government stuck in their throats. They were publicly humiliated. The pair therefore divorced themselves from the nationalist haredi rabbis. There will be no remarriage. They are looking beyond that constituency, and they will start to make eyes at the center and religious moderates.
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on December 30, 2018
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