Political Drama: Senior Israeli Ministers Launch New Right-wing Party

Education Minister Naftali Bennett, the leader of the Habayit Hayehudi party, and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked announced Saturday that they will quit the right-wing religious list and form a new political party.

In a press conference in Tel Aviv, Bennett and Shaked announced their new party, Hayamin Hahadash, or The New Right. The two said that the party will include religious and secular members. Shaked said that the new party will be led be Bennett and her.

Bennett said that Habayit Hayehudi was unable to influence policy anymore and that "Netanyahu realized that the religious Zionist community is in his pocket, and no matter how much he abused them, at the end they will always go with him."

In recent months, Habayit Hayehudi has seen internal struggle over attempts by Bennett to change party regulations to increase his independence as chairman. His opponents within the party have taken him to the party’s internal court several times.

Read more: By calling early elections, Netanyahu is taking the gamble of his life ■ Behind the scenes of Netanyahu’s decision to go to early elections

Since an early election was called on Monday, party officials have remained vague about the date of the primary election, with some speculating that Bennett wishes to call them off.

Polls published by three main television stations on Tuesday predicted Habayit Hayehudi in its current make-up would get nine to 12 seats, up from its current eight, in a general election.

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Earlier Saturday, Habayit Hayehudi lawmaker Nissan Slomiansky told Haaretz that Bennett and Shaked did not disclosed the reason for the press conference to members of the party. "We will hear [the news] together with the rest of the people of Israel," he said.

Another lawmaker, Shuli Moalem-Refaeli, said following the press conference that she was also leaving Habayit Hayehudi and joining Bennett and Shaked. Bennett and Shaked needed at least one more lawmaker to leave the party with the in order to obtain campaign funding from the state.

Habayit Hayehudi is an Orthodox religious Zionist party which was formed by a merger in 2013 of the National Religious Party, also known as Mafdal, and Tkuma, an ultra-Orthodox Zionist list. In the previous Knesset, Habayit Hayehudi had 12 seats, four of which were occupied by members of Tkuma. Today, however, Tkuma has only two lawmakers in Knesset, Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel and MK Bezalel Smotrich. In recent years, Tkuma complained it was under-represented in the joint list, and Bennett has disapproved of Tkuma’s line on many occasions.

MK Smotrich had announced that he will run for Tkuma leadership in the election primary held on January 14. Bennett expected Smotrich to win the primary, which would have moved him up the Habayit Hayehudi list and make him a natural candidate for a ministerial position in a future government. Bennett feared such a scenario, which he believed would lead to internal struggles, and therefore prefered running separately from Tkuma.

Following reports of Bennett and Shaked’s expected announcement, Smotrich told "Meet the Press" on Israel’s Channel 13 that Bennett and Shaked leaving Habayit Hayehudi is "an expected move that makes sense," since the two politicians "marked a much higher target – premiership."

Smotrich added that he would congratulate Bennett and Shaked for such a move, saying that he will "take it upon myself to unite the religious Zionist sector. There will be such a party and I want it to be strong."

The split in Habayit Hayehudi may play into the hands of the extreme right, as it may push for a union of several political players who together could garner enough support to pass the electoral threshold.

A source in the extreme-right party Otzma Leyisrael, which didn’t pass the electoral threshold in 2015 and 2013, told Haaretz that they are interested in a joint Knesset bid with Tkuma members. Otzma Leyisrael is also negotiating with former minister Eli Yishai, who split from ultra-Orthodox Shas in 2014, and his Yahad party, who had joined forces with it before the 2015 election.

The extreme right wishes to recreate their past achievement in securing Knesset seats with a possible union of ex-Habayit Hayehudi lawmakers, Tkuma, Otzma Leyisrael and Yishai’s Yahad. Another extreme right party, Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut, is on the negotiating table, but unlikely to become part of such union.