Jewish Home chairman Rafi Peretz agreed to merge his faction with Naftali Bennett’s New Right late Wednesday night, breaking his agreement with the far-right Otzma Yehudit in the final minutes before the party filing deadline for the upcoming March election.
Otzma Yehudit, a party of self-described disciples of the late extremist rabbi Meir Kahane, then submitted its slate on its own in a scene that was reminiscent of the last filing deadline before the September election. That time, too, last-minute deals left Otzma Yehudit to run on its own. It ended up below the electoral threshold.
Earlier Wednesday evening, after talks between Bennett and Peretz snagged, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu invited the two men to his Jerusalem office along with prominent national religious rabbi Chaim Druckman. The sit-down is believed to be what brought the parties over the merger finish line.
Peretz, the education minister, in recent days had vowed not to break the agreement he reached last month with Otzma Yehudit, but came under immense pressure from Netanyahu’s Likud party as well as other right-wing officials who were worried the Jewish Home-Otzma slate would not clear the 3.25% electoral threshold.
Bennett had similar misgivings regarding the New Right’s chances, which ultimately led him to break a similar vow to run independently in March. The defense minister had expressed hope that the national religious camp was large enough to support two parties — his slightly more liberal New Right and a conglomerate of the far-right Jewish Home, National Union and Otzma Yehudit parties. But on Tuesday he caved to concerns regarding the electoral threshold and inked a deal with National Union.
That deal briefly left Jewish Home and Otzma Yehudit on their own, with Bennett maintaining that he would only merge with Peretz’s party if it dropped Otzma Yehudit, whose chairman, Itamar Ben Gvir, has a picture in his living room of the perpetrator of a 1994 massacre of Muslim worshipers in Hebron.
If Bennett and Peretz had stuck to their guns, the national religious camp would have been represented in the election by two separate slates with minimal ideological differences between them. Bezalel Smotrich, who leads National Union, is known for his far-right views on matters of religion and state, expressing support for governing by Torah law in addition to a host of other statements against the LGBT community.
Jewish Home’s last-minute merger with the New Right and National Union returned the three national religious parties to nearly an identical formula to the one that ran in September. Then, the alliance was called Yamina and was led by Bennett’s New Right partner Ayelet Shaked. This time the merger will be led by Bennett, followed by Peretz, Shaked and Smotrich, respectively.
The first nine spots are as follows:
1. Naftali Bennett (New Right)
2. Rafi Peretz (Jewish Home)
3. Ayelet Shaked (New Right)
4. Bezalel Smotrich (National Union)
5. Matan Kahane (New Right)
6. Ofir Sofer (National Union)
7. Idit Silman (Jewish Home)
8. Sarah Beck (Jewish Home)
9. Shirli Pinto (New Right)
The alliance is seen as a victory for Bennett, who managed to resist pressure from Netanyahu and his associates to fold Otzma Yehudit into his party. The New Right chairman published a lengthy Facebook post earlier Wednesday explaining why Ben Gvir and his partners were personae non grata.
“As the chairman of the New Right party now running for Knesset, and as a former education minister of the State of Israel, I won’t include on my slate someone who keeps a photograph in his living room of a man who murdered 29 innocent people,” Bennett wrote.
In response, Ben Gvir offered to take the photo of Baruch Goldstein down after considerable pressure behind the scenes from Peretz. However, Bennett stuck to his guns and said the photo was merely a symbol of a broader ideology that he was not comfortable including in his party. Notably, Jewish Home officials had defended Otzma Yehudit in recent weeks, saying the differences between the two parties were more about style than substance.
In April, New Right ran alone and failed to enter the Knesset, while Otzma Yehudit joined with Jewish Home and National Union in the Union of Right Wing Parties; that alliance won five seats, leaving Ben Gvir, in sixth slot, too low on the list to enter the Knesset.
The prime minister was angrily criticized for engineering the merger with Otzma Yehudit at the time, drawing a rare rebuke from pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, among others.
Otzma Yehudit’s leadership is made up of disciples of the late American-born rabbi Meir Kahane, whose Jewish supremacist Kach party was banned under Israeli law for incitement to racism and later declared a terrorist group.
The party supports encouraging emigration of non-Jews from Israel, and expelling Palestinians and Israeli Arabs who refuse to declare loyalty to Israel and accept diminished status in an expanded Jewish state whose sovereignty extends throughout the West Bank.
Speaking to reporters after filing his party’s slate, Ben Gvir lashed out at Peretz, calling him a “traitor” for breaking his agreement.
“The so-called education minister stabbed me in the back,” Ben Gvir said before vowing to press on with an independent run for Knesset. “A right-wing victory in these elections will depend on Otzma Yehudit succeeding.”
Netanyahu praised Peretz, saying he “showed leadership and did the right thing.”