Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday reached a preliminary election deal with two fringe religious-nationalist parties in a bid to unify his voting bloc ahead of April elections.
Netanyahu’s Likud party announced it would reserve the 28th spot on its Knesset list for the Bayit HaYehudi party and grant it two Cabinet ministries in a future government if it merges with the extreme right-wing Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party led by Aryeh Eldad and Michael Ben Ari.
The agreement also includes the National Union, bringing the Bayit Yehudi’s partner from the previous elections back into the fold for the upcoming ones. The three parties will now run a joint list for the upcoming elections.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who was scheduled to depart for Russia, delayed his departure to enter into the talks directly, continuing to pressure Rabbi Rafi Peretz to have his Bayit Yehudi party reach agreement to bring Otzma Yehudit onboard, as Mr. Netanyahu is clearly concerned about right-wing votes being tossed in the trash as occurred in the last election. He understands these critical votes could be sufficient in number to open the door of opportunity for Benny Gantz and his Israel Resilience Party to enter and take the lead, permitting him to attempt to establish a left-wing coalition government.
Otzma Yehudit is comprised of hard-line religious nationalists who have cast themselves as successors to the Kahanist movement, which dreamed of turning Israel into a Jewish theocracy and advocated forced removal of its Palestinians.
Recent polls project Likud winning about 30 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, while Bayit Yehudi and Otzma Yehudit may not have enough support to enter Knesset on their own. Together, the two small parties would likely cross the electoral threshold and capture several parliamentary seats.
The Bayit Yehudi party sealed the deal in a committee vote on Wednesday, a day before parties running the April 9 parliamentary election must finalize their lineups.
Among the prominent figures in the joint Bayit Yehudi-Otzma Yehudit list are Bezalel Smotrich, a self-avowed “proud homophobe,” Itamar Ben Gvir, an attorney who has made a career defending Israelis implicated in “West Bank violence”, and Benzi Gopstein, leader of an extremist anti-assimilation group whose Twitter handle translates to “Kahane was right.”
Ben Gvir, a member of Otzma Yehudit , said that his faction “put personal honor aside” to prevent Netanyahu’s main election rival from forming a government.
Netanyahu’s gambit drew criticism from opposition politicians. Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay called the move “bankruptcy” of the Likud party’s values.
Benny Gantz, a former army chief who is Netanyahu’s main challenger, criticized the prime minister’s courting of extremists. His Israeli Resilience party said: “Netanyahu lost touch with his Zionism and with his dignity.”
Netanyahu’s move to unite right-wing nationalist parties ahead of Thursday’s party list deadline was one of several last-minute negotiations across the spectrum to form broader blocs.
Gantz and Yair Lapid, a leading opposition politician and former finance minister, also spent much of Wednesday hashing out a possible centrist union.
Netanyahu called Bayit Yehudi leader Rafi Peretz and congratulated him on the positive results, something that the Prime Minister has been working towards for the past week.
According to a report on Ynet, the non-Likud party member, whose spot was reserved for an appointment of Netanyahu’s to the Likud list, will be returned to the Bayit Yehudi party following the elections, essentially giving the party an extra Knesset member.
During the call between Peretz and Netanyahu, the two agreed on a extra-vote sharing agreement, thus allocating all extra votes that do not tally up to a full Knesset seat of both parties to be combined into a unified group for the larger party, in the hopes of garnering an extra seat for the Likud out of the deal as well.
During the Bayit Yehudi Central Committee meeting, Peretz spoke to the gathered committee members about the importance of running a joint list. “We came together tonight in order to decide the future of religious Zionism and the future of our house – because our house is in danger. When a person’s house is in danger, one opens the door to its sons who have left and who are returning to save it.”
Peretz continued: “To make it clear, members of the Otzma Yehudit party do not share my values and they are not from my Beit Midrash. We have very different worldviews and many times they conflict. Therefore, I refused, and continue to refuse to a unity with Otzma Yehudit. But I will accept them in as guests. This is a technical agreement, for a short time, and following the elections, we will separate once again. This is not an ideal agreement, but the good of the nation and the good of the land of Israel stand before our very eyes.”
Yishai received a proposal from the Unified-Right party that his Yachad party would receive the 9th seat on the list and the third ministerial position. Yishai refused the proposal.
Many members of the party questioned the wisdom of the agreement. During a press conference that was held earlier on Wednesday prior to the Central Committee vote, the Director of the local chapters of the party, Amiad Taub said publicly that he believed it was a bad idea. “Netanyahu is winding us up with a massive media spin over the past few weeks and is trying to scare us into doing this.”
Party member and Deputy Mayor of Lod, Yossi Harush told the gathered press that, “It was very hard for us to accept the behavior of Betzalel Smotritch over the last month but we took him because we had no choice. Now suddenly they are bringing us Otzma Yehudit? This really pains us that the majority of the people who once were with us are now fleeing from us.”
(AP / YWN – Israel Desk, Jerusalem)