On Thursday, from 2 to 10 PM, an estimated 30,000 registered members of the Habayit Hayehudi party will vote for one of three candidates for Party Chairman. Two are relative unknowns: Col. (Res.) Yonatan Branski, and Rabbi Itzhak Zaga. The third one is the current chairman, Naftali Bennett, and if you didn’t know, the logo above the party website identifies the party as: Habayit Hayehudi under the chairmanship of Naftali Bennett.
Chairman Bennett used the home field advantage much earlier, when he surprise-announced the primary election about six weeks ago, on March 8, just before Purim, and then Passover, leaving his potential opponents little time to prepare and then even less time to book appearances with voters on one of the two busiest time-blocks of the year. Clever.
So the exciting question in this primary election isn’t who would be the winner – it will undoubtedly be Naftali Bennett – but by how much.
Bennett has been dogged by one of his two unknown opponents, Branski, 45, whose military record has been stellar: Deputy Commander of the IDF Gaza Division; Commander of the Infantry Dept. at the IDF Staff and Command College; Commander of the Negev Brigade; Chief of Staff of the Military Rabbinate, and Commander of the Netzah Yehuda Battalion (which caters to religious soldiers).
The sudden election for party chairman gave Branski a chance to cash in on his credentials, introduce himself to party members who may have not known much about him (he is scandal-free, as far as we know), and give a voice to many in the party who reject Bennett’s attempt to drag the party to the secular center, possibly at the expense of their dearly held values.
And so, there is some drama in what was designed to be a drama-free election. To wit: should newcomer Branski manage to grab more than 25% of the votes, this would point out members’ significant disgruntlement with Bennett, and practically usher Branski into a high spot on the Knesset list come the pre-general elections party primaries.
While Naftali Bennett deserves credit for reviving the near-expiring National Religious Party in 2013, charging into the Knesset and the coalition government with 12 MKs – for only the second time in party history, in 2015 the same Bennett was played like a violin by an elections maestro, PM Benjamin Netanyahu, whose Likud party siphoned four seats off Habayit Hayehudi, cutting its strength by a third.
Today, at least one poll gives Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked 15 seats, should she run as party leader in the next election – Bennett only gets 12, the same 12 he gave away to Netanyahu along with his lunch money.
With a largely disappointed rank and file, who have seen Habayit Hayehudi capitulating to the Supreme Court on the demolition of Amona and who still experience a de facto settlements freeze, and who recall past failures of Bennett, most notably his being played by the Haredi parties in collaboration with his own Haredi Zionist faction, over the election of the current Haredi Chief Rabbi—Bennett was Minister of Religious Services at the time—it should be noted that Habayit Hayehudi membership is down to 30,000 from 78,000 four years ago. With such a small number, anything can happen.
For instance: the presumably lackluster pro-Bennett voters could be outnumbered by pro-Branski voters; the first group may not bother to show at the polls, the other will be charged up. Possibly.
Come back to this page for an update after 10 PM Israel time (3 PM New York).