Naftali Bennett is the chairman of the New Right party, not Yamina leader Ayelet Shaked, as the two have led the public to believe, Zman Yisrael, the Hebrew sister site of The Times of Israel, revealed on Tuesday.
Formerly the leader of the Jewish Home party, Bennett, along with then-justice minister Shaked, split from the national-religious party in December 2018 to form the New Right, saying their new party seeks to forge a full, equal partnership between the secular and religious sectors.
The two had hoped to pull votes away from both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud and the Union of Right-Wing Parties – a faction comprising of the Jewish Home, the National Union, and the far-right Otzma Yehudit Party – but the maneuver failed and New Right did not pass the 3.25% electoral threshold in the April 9 elections.
Ahead of the second vote this year, set for September 17 after Netanyahu failed to form a coalition, New Right joined forces with Jewish Home and the National Union to form the Yamina alliance and, in an attempt to broaden voter appeal, named Shaked – a controversial but very popular politician – as its leader.
However, a review of the New Right’s party bylaws reveals that Bennett has remained New Right chairman, despite Shaked being publicly presented as its leader throughout the campaign and being placed as No. 1 on Yamina’s Knesset slate. Bennett is New Right’s No. 2, making him No. 4 on Yamina’s merged slate.
As chairman, Bennett maintains the authority to split the party from Yamina after the elections, potentially leaving Shaked with no Knesset faction to head.
New Right declined to comment on the party’s official legal status and Zman Yisrael’s attempt to discern whether Bennett was indeed the sole chairman or if Shaked was listed as co-chairwoman was met with a refusal by the party to comment.
The reason for this ambiguity seems to be the party’s desire to maintain Shaked’s status as head of Yamina during the election campaign and defer any discussion on the faction’s political future until after the results come in.
At a press conference Shaked and Bennett held last week alongside three senior officials from Moshe Feiglin — the Zehut party leader, who officially endorsed Yamina after deciding to bow out of the race — the two were asked if the New Right plans on splitting from Yamina.
Shaked ducked the question and excused herself saying she had to attend a political event, but Bennett did not mince words: “I, as chairman of the New Right, say that what we’re offering is an independent path. You can see the diversity in opinions [between him and Shaked]. I will insist that we hold the coalition talks together but we greatly differ on some issues.”
Yamina faction members, he explained, “agree on virtually everything when it comes to diplomatic policies, but we differ on issues of religion and state. On the economy – there are things we agree on and things we disagree on. That’s why I definitely see New Right as a long-term faction … New Right will be an independent faction in the next Knesset.”
A review of public records at the Registrar of Political Parties, a unit in the Justice Ministry, shows that Bennett is the only one listed as the leader of the party, which, incidentally, still officially bears the name “The Zionism, Liberalism and Equality Party.”
Spanning one page, the party’s bylaws have not been updated since last December. The charter names Bennett as the party’s chairman and gives him full authority over its operations, including naming a secretary-general and a comptroller, forming and finalizing the party’s slate, changing the bylaws, admitting new members, and making “any other decision that has not been subjected to another institution as listed in these bylaws.”
As for the rights afforded to party members, the bylaws state that “they will serve in an advisory capacity with respect to the party’s operations” — nothing more, meaning Shaked’s status is, at best, ambiguous.
Up in the air
Since the election campaign was launched, Shaked has been working as if her life depends on Yamina’s performance on September 17. She has been crisscrossing the country, attending one political event after another, and investing just as much energy in social media, especially Facebook, where she is the most active politician — with the exception of Netanyahu — doing a live-stream almost every other day. In these videos, she reiterates that only Yamina can keep a future Netanyahu-led government from straying to the left.
So far, the polls have not been kind to Shaked. While in August Yamina was projected to win 11 seats in the 120-member Knesset, September’s polls have seen it drop to eight or nine seats. In public, Shaked has endeavored to maintain her “ice princess” image, but journalists and party activists who have seen her in recent weeks tell of a shorter-than-usual temper and overall irritability.
What really bothers Shaked is her fate after the election, because she knows Bennett doesn’t need her consent to break from Yamina.
As it turns out, Bennett’s decision to cede the leadership is only temporary, landing Shaked exactly where she was after April’s elections – wrestling with the decision of what to do next. She now has to decide whether to exit Yamina with Bennett if and when he makes his move, or break away on her own and become an independent MK. Naturally, no one in Yamina seems to have any idea what she may have planned.
One scenario offers Shaked the option of remaining in Yamina by rejoining Jewish Home, where she is expected to challenge current chairman Rafi Peretz for the leadership of the party she left less than a year ago. This is an unlikely scenario, as zigzagging between parties will hurt her politically and could thwart her intention to vie for a spot on Likud’s slate come its next primaries.
Another scenario could see Shaked join Bennett, leave Yamina and remain part of New Right, but this, too, seems unlikely as it will not allow her to start the clock on the mandatory three years of membership the Likud requires of those seeking to mount a primaries bid.
Shaked also has the option of leaving Yamina and becoming an independent MK before joining the Likud, but Basic Law: The Knesset – a quasi-constitutional law that governs the process of elections to the Israeli parliament – bars independents from joining slates already elected to the Knesset, meaning she would have to wait until another election is called — after the next one — in order to join Likud.
In contrast, the Knesset Law, which governs parliament’s daily operations, distinguishes between leaving a faction and splitting from a party, saying that leaving a faction doesn’t prevent a lawmaker from vying for a spot on another party’s list. It does, however, demand at least two MKs split from a faction to do so, meaning this path is also closed to Shaked.
Jurists who specialize in laws dealing with parties and elections told Zman Yisrael that the simplest scenario that would allow Shaked to join Likud and run in its primaries once she has three years’ seniority is if she left the Knesset. But Shaked is not expected to do so if she is not made a member of the government because that would be admitting she had made a mistake in rushing back into politics after April’s elections.
However, if Shaked is made a minister – a position which under Israeli law does not require her to be an MK – she could resign as a Knesset member and go ahead with her plan.
Shaked, who is known for keeping her cards close to her chest, could be regretting her decision to reject Bennett’s offer to join forces with Zehut in the upcoming elections. A political alliance of that nature would have heralded a clear libertarian message that many voters, secular and religious alike, would have found appealing and, according to various surveys, would have secured at least seven Knesset seats.
The decision to join forces with Jewish Home and the National Union, however, narrowed Yamina’s electorate to the national-religious sector, making for a boring, anemic campaign.
Bennett surely also regrets that decision, but he is committed to backing Shaked until election day, so as to maximize Yamina’s performance in the polls. This is why he has made it a point to stress in recent political events that he has “no say” in Yamina, as all he is there is just another party member.
Speaking at a political event in Jerusalem on Monday, Bennett praised Shaked, telling the audience: “Ayelet is a phenomenal leader. She knows how to compromise; she knows how to bring people together, and she knows how to speak with everyone. Netanyahu needs a strong woman like her at his side.”
Asked whether Yamina did not, in fact, represent his return to the Jewish Home party, which he left less than a year ago, he replied: “First of all, we failed, there’s nothing we can do about that. Second of all, this is a technical bloc. And finally — this time I’m not a leader, I’m only No. 4 on the faction’s slate.”
Statements of this nature are merely a smokescreen. Bennett’s mindset is that of the New Right leader, who is dedicated to getting as many Knesset seats as possible for Yamina, as anything less than nine seats will render him the head of a tiny, two-member faction (alongside Yamina’s No. 7 Matan Peleg).
From there, as he recently said, he will have to demonstrate the patience of those willing to weather a long journey, even without a “strong woman” at his side.
This article first appeared in Hebrew on The Times of Israel’s sister site, Zman Yisrael.