When people thought that Avigdor Lieberman would someday be prime minister, I explained that Yisrael Beiteinu would disappear from the political map. The reason is that, like Kadima, the former foreign minister’s party is about a person, not a party. Lieberman is a talented and very charismatic leader who created a party with a steady and loyal voter base. The real market value of Yisrael Beiteinu (as long as Lieberman heads it) is eight mandates. In the previous elections, the Likud lost approximately 10 mandates as a result of Netanyahu’s battle against me. Most of those mandates went to Lieberman and raised the party’s market value way above where it should be. As the state’s attorney has managed to sideline Lieberman, his party will shrivel up and its voters will disperse (temporarily) to a number of parties – primarily to the Jewish Home Party.
The Jewish Home
Naftali Bennett’s new party is undoubtedly the most fascinating story of the election campaign. For about 20 years, the National Religious Party’s stock has been traded way below its true value, which I estimate to be about 8-10 mandates.
The reasons for the political downfall of religious Zionism are a combination of irrelevant ideology and aging leadership that did not have the wisdom to involve the public in choosing the party’s ideological path and its leadership. The first (message), fifth (mechanism) and sixth (leadership) components of party building were extremely problematic.
The general public that in the 1970s expected the “new generation of crocheted kippot” to take responsibility and lead despaired of the religious Zionists and turned to alternatives. Over the years, those who had represented Israeli hope turned into a type of “nudnik.” The NRP, which had won 12 mandates in 1977, was hounded by infighting and practically disappeared. Religious Zionism is a unique sector that feels all-inclusive responsibility for the nation of Israel. It contributes to society, volunteers and serves more than any other sector in the country. But it is this very sector that has found itself harassed, expelled from its status and sometimes even from its own homes.
The haredi parties do not participate in the Zionist endeavor and the religious Zionists tended to scorn them. But they have many more mandates than the NRP. The religious Zionists, more numerous and higher quality, looked on for an entire generation as Israeli society turned its back on them, stopped taking their needs and opinions into account, ignored their great contribution to the state and cozied up to the politics of its haredi competitors.
The NRP’s message is not narrow; it appeals to the general public. But its political tool is narrow. The Religious Zionist nationalist/rightist ideology prevents it from skipping between Right and Left, as the haredi parties do. This built-in political glitch leaves them empty-handed on both ends. They don’t really enjoy the privilege of turning to the general public. Conversely, they don’t enjoy the bargaining advantage of limited politics. After all, the Jewish Home Party will never endorse Shelly Yachimovich as its candidate for prime minister.
If the Likud continues to lose ground in the polls until its continued rule is in danger, the Jewish Home voters will rush to vote Likud because the Jewish Home does not supply the merchandise. It does not offer a ruling alternative. All it really supplies is a psychological sense of ease.
So what caused the religious Zionist stock to almost double its value? After all, it did not solve its basic problem, the dissonance between its all-inclusive ideology and its narrow political tool. In these elections, Jewish Home provides the opportunity to restore the lost honor of an entire generation. Once again, “we” matter. A long list of very worthy representatives of the religious Zionist community will enter the Knesset, making Jewish Home the third largest party in the Knesset. The religious Zionists feel that they are once again taking their rightful place in Israeli society.
Its successful registration drive and primaries restored a well-run party mechanism. It reconnected the party to its natural membership base and its ideological supporters, and it installed a new and charismatic leader in Bennett as its head.
The Jewish Home is now being traded for 13 mandates – and counting. It can certainly get more in the elections. But in the future, it will shrink back to its real value. This is because its charismatic leader does not really herald a new message and does not really solve the dissonance described above.
It is no accident that the contentious subject of conscientious objection was laid at Bennett’s doorstep from the very start. This issue digs deep into one of the most basic dilemmas in the national religious ideology: the relationship between faith and state. The conscientious objection issue is the civil language that frames the faith-based question that asks: who is king, God or the state? Bennett’s zigzag and the fact that his entire roster stood behind him on this issue placed the amazing achievement of the reunification of religious Zionism on a very shaky ideological foundation. It also negated its ability to herald the message that it pretends to carry. Jewish Home voters can be absolutely sure that their party will not expel Jews from their homes – on Shabbat!
Before the elections, the Jewish Home candidates have managed to remain silent and to close ranks in the face of theoretical challenges. They all stand firmly behind their ascending leader who avoids ideological statements. But when faced with reality’s challenges, the arguments and divisions will begin, highlighting the fact that the party is narrow-based and driving away voters who are not from their natural base. The Jewish Home Party will then return to its natural size.
What Will Happen In Next Week’s Elections?
With great talent, and partly due to its political assault on Bennett and its decisive stand against conscientious objection, the Likud has distanced the religious Zionist public that had been joining the party over the last number of years.
The votes that should have been coming in from Yisrael Beiteinu will disperse in every direction when their party leader is forced to step down. The person most likely to benefit from this is – once again – Naftali Bennett. Other parties, including Likud, will benefit from these defections as well.
It is reasonable to assume that despite all the setbacks, the Likud will form the next government. This is not a sure thing, though. It is fluid enough for some other factor (like criminal charges against a senior minister) to enter the picture at the 11th hour to redirect more mandates away from the Likud. If the Likud wins less than 30 seats and Labor tops 20, Deri (the Shas head who certainly prefers Yachimovich) will abstain from endorsing Netanyahu for prime minister. In that scenario, Deri’s move would enable President Peres to ask Yachimovich to form a government – and she could certainly succeed by cobbling together a “social” platform with Shas.
One way or another, the Jewish Home will win at least 15 mandates. If Netanyahu includes Bennett in his government, the latter will be forced to go a very long distance with Netanyahu in the face of negotiations and political surrenders. After all, Netanyahu could always exchange him for Yachimovich, Livni or Lapid – or all of them. The Jewish Home will never have a political option other than Likud. It is also very likely that Bennett will never make it into the coalition at all.
There is no choice for those loyal to the Land of Israel but to remember that the contest is not between Likud or Labor, or Likud or NRP. The real name of the game is leadership of the national ruling party, namely leadership of the state of Israel.
The generation of Yamit (over 30 years ago) did not understand this crucial point and did not draw the obvious conclusion that a faith-based alternative must be established. Instead, it passed this issue on to the next generation: the generation of the expulsion from Gush Katif. It seems that the Disengagement generation also did not understand, and despite the great progress that Manhigut Yehudit has made in the Likud, religious Zionists are now returning to narrow-based politics. If this trend continues, our children will also find themselves negotiating between a leftist government that wants to expel them and a rightist government that expels without asking.
The solution is not to jump off the train. The solution is to progress slowly but surely to the steering wheel. Those who understand this do not leave the Likud and consider the true market value of the various parties and not the current political fads. We should not make light of the parties being traded under their value, but we must also not become overenthusiastic when a party leaps way above its true value.
From this perspective, the Likud was and remains the party with which to build faith-based leadership for the state of Israel. It is the only party that gives political hope for a true solution. We must remain loyal to the political earth under our feet – even when it is trembling. Those who choose to vote now for the Jewish Home Party are basically removing themselves from the relevant arena.
The Likud is not a rose garden. It has expelled Jews in the past and is still capable of doing so. But we cannot ignore the fact that within the parameters of its tactical abilities (when there is no political plan on the table) the Likud does more for settlement than any other party.
In a 12-year struggle, we have led the religious Zionists deep into the ruling party. The Likud, in turn, gladly opened its gates wide. There are more settlers at the top of the Likud list today than on any other list. We must not stop this important process – the only process that is the right solution for the real problem, the process that will create authentic Jewish leadership for Israel.
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