Former Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked has ousted ally Naftali Bennett, the former education minister, to head the New Right (Hayemin Hehadash) party ahead of Israel's upcoming general election on 17 September.
Shaked made the long-awaited announcement yesterday, claiming to "present before you a clear leadership". She explained that "with personal and political courage, my partner Naftali Bennett chose to renounce his no. 1 spot, but not his place at the fore of the party's leadership."
Bennett also attended the press conference, saying that: "Half a year ago, we established Hayemin Hehadash for Israelis who yearn for a right-wing party that unites religious and secular, ultra-Orthodox and observant, for Israelis who want a worthy and idealistic right, a right that governs and doesn't only shout."
He continued: "As you all know, I took full responsibility for the April election's outcome, which I'm also doing now. Because for unity, one must make some personal concessions."
The announcement ends weeks of speculation as to Shaked's political fate, after the New Right party failed to cross the electoral threshold in April's election. The pair was then unceremoniously dismissed from their ministerial positions by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was reportedly "outraged" that they attempted to attend a security cabinet meeting despite failing to secure re-election to the Knesset.
Shaked, however, does not seem content with heading the New Right party and is now setting her sights on a merger of all religious-Zionist parties ahead of the 1 August deadline to declare party slates for the September election.
"A union is the ideological right wing's insurance certificate," she said yesterday: "Together, under my leadership, we'll become a significant and powerful force that will lead the State of Israel with courage and faith."
The latest election polls show that, if Shaked were to head a broad right-wing coalition, the alliance could gain as many as 12 seats, significantly more than its presumed component parts currently hold.
This alliance would likely include Shaked's New Right party, the Union of Right Wing Parties (URWP) – itself an amalgamation of smaller right-wing factions, including Shaked's former party Jewish Home and the National Union – and potentially the ultra-right-wing Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party, which recently broke off its working arrangement with URWP.
Ultimately it will be Netanyahu who has the final say on whether the merger goes ahead. Following Shaked's announcement yesterday, Netanyahu stressed that though he would not intervene "for the time being", he will intercede "if necessary" to ensure the merger goes ahead.
Such a move might be in Netanyahu's interest, as it could bring the right-wing bloc desperately-needed seats and reduce the prime minister's reliance on now arch-rival Avigdor Lieberman, who is expected to once again retain the "kingmaker" position and therefore his ability to hamper the formation of a government.
However, the merger could also have the opposite effect, depriving Netanyahu's Likud party of two seats – the difference between electoral victory and defeat. In this scenario, Likud's biggest competitor, the Blue and White (Kahol Lavan) alliance headed by Benny Gantz, would become the biggest party and therefore be given the first shot at forming a government.
To this end, Netanyahu is reportedly working behind the scenes to halt the merger, despite his statement to the contrary. The Times of Israel yesterday reported that Netanyahu called URWP head, Rafi Peretz, three times in 24 hours urging him to reject a deal with Shaked.
Netanyahu's wife Sara has also weighed in on the prospect of a merger, meeting with Peretz's wife, Michal, to request that she convince her husband not to ally with Shaked. The Israeli daily confirmed these rumours, citing an "associate" of Peretz as saying that Sara had urged Michal to convince her husband not to give Shaked the top spot in any merger agreement.
Sara has denied the claims, with a response on her behalf saying that the pair "met by chance briefly at a large wedding. The two embraced briefly, surrounded by a large crowd, and decided to meet later". "The claim about the details of the conversation that ostensibly took place is fictional," the statement added.
This is not the first time Sara has spoken out against Shaked. After rumours circulated that Shaked could join the Likud party, taking a high-ranking position on the electoral slate reserved for her by the prime minister, in June Netanyahu suddenly backtracked on his support for the move.
This reportedly came after Sara took Netanyahu aside during negotiations and "castigated him for even considering such a move", saying "Ayelet Shaked won't be in Likud. Period". Though Sara holds no official sway over such matters in her position as the prime minister's wife, she has long been thought to have outsize influence over political appointments and policy. Her reasons for vetoing Shaked are, however, unknown.