What a difference a few months and the prospect of political oblivion make. When Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett broke away from Habayit Hayehudi to strike out on their own as Hayamin Hahadash, they did so with the express goal of distancing themselves from fellow party members like “proud homophobe” and pro-segregationist Bezalel Smotrich. That Bennett and Shaked’s own views on issues like annexation were hardly more progressive mattered little; the pair believed if they were able to market themselves as a more moderate strain of religious Zionism, they’d peel away support from their rump party and emerge as the leading right-wing alternative to Likud. 

Hayamin Hahadash’s narrow failure in passing the electoral threshold in April’s elections did not prove their lack of popularity, despite the initial narrative that came about following the results. The pair was a victim of several factors, including an aggressive campaign by the prime minister who, for personal reasons, wanted to drive Bennett and Shaked out of the Knesset. And it can hardly be argued that their original political home fared much better. Had it not been for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s push for a union between it and the neo-Kahanist Otzma Yehudit to create the Union of Right-Wing Parties, there was a chance Habayit Hayehudi might have found itself on the wrong side of the threshold instead. 

Curiously, since the announcement of new elections, and Bennett and Shaked’s return to politics, it seems as though the two are playing a double game: once again touting themselves as the vanguard of a new type of liberal Israeli nationalism while simultaneously doing little to distance themselves from the fringe. For all their disdain towards Smotrich and his ideological partners, it was Bennett and Shaked who pushed most aggressively to lead a united bloc of right-wing parties — this, after the much-publicized comments by URWP leader Rafi Peretz defending gay conversion therapy,  support for an apartheid regime imposed on West Bank Palestinians in the event of annexation, and Smotrich’s bizarre aspirations for a halakhic state, which he has since repeated. The veneer of moderation was clearly, in this case, superseded by the need to be politically relevant. When Peretz insisted he’d only agree to a merger if he were its leader and a prominent rabbi claimed Shaked, a secular woman, was not fit to lead a religious Zionist party, Shaked countered that women “can do anything .” Shaked’s apparent feminist bona fides were once again on display when responding to a questionable tweet by Netanyahu spokesperson Jonathan Urich, exclaiming that people would have to “get used to” a woman leading a right-wing party

However, wary of once again throwing away right-wing votes, Shaked commented she would seek to bring in both Otzma and Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut into the union, while Bennett suggested a “technical bloc” of right-wing parties that could conveniently separate after the election. Ultimately, no other merger took place, with Otzma leader Itamar Ben-Gvir claiming the spots offered to the party on the list were not sufficient, and that, despite Shaked’s desire to recruit them, her partner was insistent on keeping the Kahanists out of their circle in fear of alienating voters. Nonetheless, by even making such an offer, however insincere, the pair once again revealed their hand: ostensibly shunning the extreme right, but only enough to maintain a sort of plausible deniability.

Two conclusions can be gleaned from this behavior, neither one encouraging. Firstly, despite Bennett and Shaked’s earlier attempts to break free from a party they rightfully understood to be tainting their image, they have, after a traumatizing experience in April, jettisoned any serious pretense of trying to differentiate themselves from the majority of right-wing religious Zionists. However much they deny it, the pair were open to the idea of sitting on the same slate as a party made up of Meir Kahane’s disciples; theirs is just another chapter in the annals of Israeli politics in which survival trumps principles. 

Conversely, and perhaps more unsettling, the argument can be made that Bennett and Shaked know exactly what they’re doing in making these dubious alliances, yet have somehow managed to square the radical right’s worldview with their own. Shaked’s remarks countering misogyny were certainly justified, but her generally retrograde politics fly in the face of whatever feminist image she puts forward. Yet Shaked may have expressed this view without a hint of irony, in the belief that her identity as a secular woman is sufficient grounds to be labeled politically moderate. In this, she is not alone; one need only look at countless other examples on the right (Likud MK Amir Ohana’s statements about being the first LGBTQ justice minister while holding nakedly racist views about Arabs comes to mind) to understand that parts of the Israeli right have internalized a shallow form of liberalism, one that allows them to pick and choose what values they deem worthy of upholding. 

For many observers, Bennett and Shaked’s behavior is just a confirmation of long-held assumptions about the pair —the mask hiding their true intentions has simply slipped off or is no longer necessary. When the duo ran together in 2013, they took great pains to put themselves front and center while keeping any unsavory candidates on their list as far away from a camera or journalist as possible. Six years later, that veneer of respectability is nowhere to be found. For the left, this revelation can and must be utilized in its campaign to prevent yet another right-wing nationalist coalition from coming to power. The only thing more dangerous than the overt fanaticism of Otzma is the seemingly respectable politician who gives legitimacy to such extremism, or, worse still, ones who believe their own fanaticism is tempered by adhering to a handful of liberal precepts.