Israeli politics continue to shake up in the wake of last April, this time in the form of the upcoming September elections. During the previous election in April, Benny Gantz, former chief of general staff of the Israel Defense Forces, unsuccessfully challenged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. However, the Likud Party did not gain enough seats for Netanyahu to form a government, prompting the need for another spectacle in September. Concerned with the possibility of right wing parties losing more seats and perhaps even the premiership, former Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked has assumed the mantle of leading the New Right Party after Naftali Bennett stepped down on Sunday.
Shaked will not only lead the New Right Party, but also seek to unite other right-wing parties under her leadership, creating a coalition designed to ward off leftist candidates in the election.
“Mergers will be the insurance policy of the ideological right,” Shaked said at a press conference announcing the change of leadership. Shaked is no stranger to the Israeli political scene – she ran as co-chair for her party in April under Bennett. The New Right Party ended up only 1,500 votes shy of clearing the electoral barrier for seats in Knesset. For Shaked, such a small loss could have been prevented by merging several parties which would have given the united front more votes.
Netanyahu disagreed, however, with the notion of uniting the far right parties in the September election. This would represent a change of position on the issue, as he previously was in favor of mergers. Notably, he brought together the Jewish Home and National Union alongside Otzma Yehudit. Now, it has been reported that Netanyahu himself has called the Union of Right-Wing Parties Chairman, Raif Peretz, three times, urging him not to join forces with Shaked’s coalition. Shortly after the phone calls, Netanyahu claimed that he “will not intervene for the time being, but if necessary, I will intervene.”
Then, he met with Peretz, who currently serves as education minister, in person to discuss the issue. Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, also met with Peretz’ wife Michal at a wedding, putting pressure on her to persuade Peretz not to allow Shaked to have the leadership of a conjoined party. Critically, Sara was key to stopping Shaked from joining the Likud, as was her stated intention following April’s defeat, according to reports. Rumors paint a picture of a row between Sara, and Shaked and Bennett, both of whom previously served as aids to Netanyahu from 2006 – 2008.
A merger between the Union of Right-Wing Parties and the New Right Party already seems like a long shot, as Peretz has said that a secular woman leading the national religious party would be unseemly. His party is heavily supported by a plethora of distinguished rabbis who have often voiced their collective opinion that women should not be at the head of a political party. Shaked, however, might offer a means to avoid some of the controversy surrounding Peretz recently. His advocacy for homosexual conversion therapy and his prejudice against intermarriage which he likened to a “second Holocaust” have weakened his poll numbers when compared to a unified party under Shaked.
He also faces calls for him to step down as leader of the URWP in favor of far-right candidate Itamar Ben-Gvir. Several followers of extremest rabbi Meir Kahane have argued that Peretz has not held to a prearranged deal to resign in favor of Ben-Gvir. This has sparked a conflict between Peretz and Otzma Yehudit, which has threatened to run on its own in the September election. Doing so would weaken the right-wing of Israeli politics and imperil its hold on the Knesset. Peretz defended his leadership of the party, stating that since the Knesset was dissolved in May, it is impossible to pass a law permitting two ministers of the same party to resign in favor of a lower-ranking party member.
Ben-Gvir and Shaked boast a strong relationship which would make joining the parties easier if he was at the helm. Shaked intends to bring Otzma Yehudit to her coalition by promising higher-level positions, and Zehut as well. Doing so would create a formidable front of right-wing parties that Peretz would find difficult to ignore. As a collective front, rivaling leftist parties, Shaked’s right-wing partnership worries Netanyahu, who fears it would detract voters from the Likud.
A combined party would also potentially allow Yisrael Beytenu to dictate the election narrative. Issues such as religion and state would take a backseat to right-wing infighting, which could spoil Netanyahu’s reelection bid by splitting votes.