by Mati Tuchfeld
The one thing that disturbs PM Netanyahu more than the Likud losing votes in the upcoming Knesset election is that former leader of Habayit Hayehudi Naftali Bennett could smash the Right into pieces.
The departure of Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked from Habayit Hayehudi has left the religious Zionist party confused and reeling, but it's not the only one. Polls published on Sunday, a day after the split was announced, seemed no less bewildered, showing Bennett and Shaked's new party – the New Right – receiving anywhere from six to 14 seats in the next Knesset. In other words, even the pollsters are at a loss, and the voters seem to be, too.
The New Right will soon be shaping its image. Throwing off the bounds of Habayit Hayehudi will allow Bennett and Shaked to distance themselves from moves that they themselves have spearheaded on issues including separation of religion and state; military conscription for the ultra-Orthodox; the attitude toward Reform Jews, and more. Until now, they could claim that their stance on these questions reflected that the leaders of the religious Zionist camp, which is no longer relevant.
The big question is what target audience Bennett and Shaked are trying to reach. Are they trying to get at the right-wing voters who are considering supporting former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, or MK Orly Levy-Abekasis, as they said when they announced their new party on Saturday night? Or are they after voters who would otherwise cast ballots for the National Religious Party or the Likud? These are two separate groups, each of which requires a different campaign and different messages to woo.
For Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the question has been decided. The denigration of the new party by Likud ministers and the Likud party indicate that Netanyahu's major concern is that the New Right will steal votes from the Likud, not from Gantz or Levy-Abekasis.
Netanyahu can handle the latest split in one of two ways. The first is to go into battle, like we saw Likud ministers Miri Regev and Yariv Levin do on Sunday, attacking Bennett and accusing him of being behind a plot to bring down Netanyahu. The second way would be to embrace the new party, as he embraced Bennett ahead of the 2015 election – a warm, suffocating and neutralizing embrace. An embrace that caused Habayit Hayehudi to lose votes, which went back to the Likud. But that will happen only if Bennett announces that he will recommend that Netanyahu serve as prime minister of the next government. As long as that doesn't happen, he will be a target.
But one thing bothers Netanyahu more than the Likud losing votes – the possibility that Bennett could gobble up the small parties on the Right and take a big bite out of the nationalist camp. A situation in which Habayit Hayehudi, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon's Kulanu party, Yisrael Beytenu, and Shas are all hovering near the minimum electoral threshold would be a dangerous one. So dangerous that the Right could lose power. One of those parties failing to make it into the Knesset could bring down the entire right-wing camp and allow the Center-Left and the Arabs to form a successful opposition bloc.
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