Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been left scrambling to save the country's right-wing following the split in the Jewish Home party, pushing to lower the electoral threshold to preserve a Knesset majority.
Speaking to senior officials in the Likud party – which Netanyahu currently leads – the prime minister said that "[Naftali] Bennett and [Ayelet] Shaked are destroying right-wing parties, which won't pass the electoral threshold," adding: "This is a fatal wound to the nationalist camp that [could] lead to the rise of a left-wing government." Netanyahu's comments were confirmed by a spokesman for the Likud party today, the Jerusalem Post reported.
Netanyahu was referring to the shock decision announced this weekend by Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked that they were splitting from their current party – Jewish Home – in order to form the "New Right" (Hayemin Hehadash) party. Though the "New Right" party will still pursue Bennett's typically hawkish security policies and opposition to any future Palestinian state, the move has been interpreted as a bid to appeal to both secular right-wing and ultra-Orthodox voters, as opposed to the religious-Zionist camp that has traditionally supported the Jewish Home party.
The decision could prove fatal for the Jewish Home party, with initial polls showing it could struggle to reach the minimum electoral threshold usually needed to sit in the Knesset – which currently sits at 3.25 per cent of the vote or four seats in the 120-seat parliament. Although in previous years Israel has repeatedly increased the minimum threshold to reduce the number of fringe and Arab parties able to sit in the Knesset, reports have emerged today that Netanyahu is considering reversing this trend to ensure Jewish Home's participation in any ruling coalition after 9 April.
According to the Times of Israel, this would require approval by the Israeli opposition in a joint committee, though the current Likud-dominated coalition "could try to promote the move even without an agreement with the opposition". The Jerusalem Post added that "the opposition said Sunday that they will not support lowering the threshold," with chairwoman of left-wing party Meretz, Tamar Zandberg, saying: "Meretz will not be a tool of the terrified Right and will not lend a hand for the Likud's whims to change the rules of the elections and democracy over and over according to their fears."
Although Bennett and Shaked's move this weekend came as a surprise to both observers and the Jewish Home party itself, the Times of Israel has discovered that the pair may have been planning the split since August. The Israeli daily reported that, as the Knesset House Committee approved the formation of the "New Right" party yesterday, politicians discovered that Bennett had used a proxy to purchase a defunct political party upon which to form his new movement. It explained:
A Knesset faction must, by law, represent at least one political party registered in the Justice Ministry's Parties Registrar […] The new Knesset faction, dubbed 'New Right', is thus a representative in parliament of a 12-year-old party called 'Tzalash', which a Bennett confidant, attorney Amichai Weinberger, purchased from its original owner four months ago, in August.
"It is likely that Bennett and Shaked did not want to register a new party in their own names in order to avoid giving away their plans before they could announce them," the paper added, suggesting that Bennett and Shaked have kept their plans secret for the past few months.
This is not the first time Bennett and Shaked have colluded to further their political agenda. Following the resignation of defence minister Avigdor Lieberman in November, Bennett quickly demanded that the Jewish Home party be given the newly-vacated defence portfolio, threatening to bring down the government if his demands were not met. When Netanyahu called Bennett's bluff – taking on the position himself and refusing to give in to the party's demands – Bennett conceded defeat and agreed to keep his party in the ruling coalition. Bennett has since continued the charge against Netanyahu, earlier this month protesting against the latter's handling of the recent escalation of tensions in the occupied West Bank.