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From Yoni’s Desk: Just a matter of time until New Right leaders rebound

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Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett (R), Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked (L), March 17, 2019. (Flash90 photo)

Five days after polls closed in the 2019 Israeli legislative elections, Naftali Bennett, co-leader of the Hayamin Hehadash (New Right) party and Israel’s former minister of education, Diaspora affairs, economy and religious affairs, descended upon a warehouse in the centre of the country, accompanied by a phalanx of volunteers reportedly numbering over 100. They were hot on the trail of what Bennett claimed were missing ballots that would have vaulted the New Right above the 3.25 per cent voter threshold and into the next Knesset.

At the time, the party appeared tantalizingly close – just 1,400 votes short. An uncounted box of ballots supposedly cast by IDF soldiers, a constituency the New Right targeted hard during the campaign, could have made all the difference. But in the end, the search team managed to find a whopping one additional vote in the New Right’s favour. Two days later, the party finally conceded defeat.

This was a surprising fall from grace for Bennett and party co-leader Ayelet Shaked, the former justice minister. Both had fled the Jewish Home party at the outset of the election campaign to seek greater political fortunes. Now the pair, each considered potential future prime ministerial material in their own right until just a few weeks ago, are left sitting on the sidelines. If you needed another reason to marvel at the current prime minister’s political acumen, consider this: Benjamin Netanyahu managed to win another election, position himself to form a right-wing governing coalition and simultaneously shed two of his closest right-wing rivals. How’s that for a political trifecta?

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Bennett and Shaked are left to wonder what went so spectacularly wrong. Israeli political observers suggest their biggest mistake was opting to leave Jewish Home in the first place – the secular voters they expected the New Right to attract never materialized, and the religious votes that had brought Jewish Home to the Knesset in the first place were instead dispersed among other parties on the right. Amid a crowded field, the New Right was muscled off to the margins.

In Shaked’s case, it couldn’t have helped that she released a truly mystifying campaign ad shilling for a fake perfume called “fascism.” At the end of the spot, she spritzes herself, looks directly at the camera and says, “It smells like democracy to me.” No one could figure out exactly what message she was trying to convey. (Bennett’s signature campaign commercial, in which he lectured a live dove about the proper way to make peace while standing in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, was only slightly less incomprehensible.)

It’s a fairly safe bet that Bennett and Shaked, both young, photogenic and social media savvy, will be back for another political run. Shaked would appear to have a clearer path forward – rumours are already rampant that she will join the Likud. Bennett, meanwhile, is well-spoken in Hebrew and English and a living embodiment of the Startup Nation, where he made his fortune. It’s hard to believe he won’t bounce back, too. The key for a return to political glory will not be found in hallucinations about miscounted ballots, however, but in the hearts and minds of Israeli voters.