Interview'Our base is much more hardcore now'

Before merger with Jewish Home, Otzma Yehudit had to disavow harming innocents

Defending alliance with Kahane disciples, leader Rafi Peretz says he didn’t agree to join forces until they pledged to oppose price tag attacks and assaults on soldiers

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Rafi Peretz, leader of the Jewish Home party, speaks at the campaign opening event of Union of Right Wing Parties in Jerusalem on March 11, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Rafi Peretz, leader of the Jewish Home party, speaks at the campaign opening event of Union of Right Wing Parties in Jerusalem on March 11, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Jewish Home chairman Rafi Peretz says that before he agreed to merge with Otzma Yehudit ahead of the upcoming elections, he required the far-right faction to denounce the targeting of innocent Palestinians.

“We clarified a number of issues with them before moving forward in forming a technical bloc,” said Peretz, referring to the Union of Right-Wing Parties, the alliance his party formed last month with Otzma Yehudit.

Speaking to The Times of Israel at his campaign headquarters in Airport City on Sunday, the Jewish Home leader said that after he received positive answers to his three main concerns, he was prepared to move forward with the controversial merger.

“Price tag attacks: Are you for or against them?” Peretz said he asked the Otzma Yehudit leaders, referring to vandalism and other hate crimes carried out by Jewish ultra-nationalists in retaliation to Palestinian violence or government policies perceived as unfavorable to the settler movement.

Jewish Home, National Union and Otzma Yehudit parties file their joint party slate ‘Union of Right-Wing Parties’ with the Central Elections Committee, February 21, 2019. (Raoul Wootliff/Times of Israel)

“The response they gave was ‘we are against [such attacks],'” the Jewish Home head said, quoting the Otzma Yehudit leadership, which includes former National Union MK Michael Ben Ari and activist-attorney Itamar Ben Gvir. Ben Gvir is known for representing Jewish terror suspects, including those who have carried out price tag attacks. Ben Ari’s candidacy was disqualified last week by the Supreme Court over incitement to racism.

The second issue on which Peretz asked for clarification was attacks and disparagement targeting IDF soldiers. This was in apparent reference to a growing number of incidents during outpost demolitions in which young, far-right protesters have assaulted Israeli security forces. The Jewish Home chairman said that the Otzma Yehudit leadership assured him that they are against such actions.

Lastly, Peretz recalled asking the slate of self-described Meir Kahane disciples if they were “willing to unequivocally say that under no circumstance will you encourage the harming of innocent Arabs.”

Evidently, the Otzma Yehudit leadership’s lionization of Jewish extremists such as Baruch Goldstein, who gunned down 29 Muslim worshipers at the Tomb of the Patriarchs holy site in Hebron in 1994, had left Peretz feeling that he needed to clarify this issue in particular.

After receiving a positive answer to the third question as well, Peretz said that he was comfortable going ahead with the alliance. Ben Gvir confirmed the account to The Times of Israel.

While he declined to make any promises, Peretz said his intention was for the Jewish Home and the National Union — another hardline faction in the URWP — to separate from Otzma Yehudit on the day after elections.

Nonetheless, he spoke in defense of Ben Ari, who was the subject of what he called a “discriminatory” decision in which the Supreme Court barred the Otzma Yehudit head (who was URWP’s No. 5 candidate) from running, while at the same time authorizing far-left Hadash-Ta’al member Ofer Kassif as well as the Ra’am-Balad Arab Israeli slate.

The Jewish Home party votes on a pre-election alliance with Otzma Yehudit in Petah Tikva, February 20, 2019. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

Peretz acknowledged that Ben Ari “may speak in a language that is a little harsh, but he would never speak badly about the State of Israel, or speak badly about IDF soldiers.” Kassif, in contrast, has compared the IDF to the Nazi regime.

Otzma Yehudit party member Michael Ben Ari is seen at a press conference in Jerusalem following the High Court of Justice’s decision to bar him from running in upcoming Knesset elections, on March 17, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Pressed as to whether he would have been willing to accept the Supreme Court handing down the same ruling across the board for Ben Ari, Kassif and Ra’am-Balad, Peretz initially said “it’s possible,” but then declined to address such hypothetical questions.

The Jewish Home leader said that the decision to merge with Otzma Yehudit — in an agreement orchestrated by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — stemmed from a sense of “national responsibility”: preventing a left-wing government. Peretz acknowledged that the concern his party would not have received enough votes to pass the electoral threshold without uniting with Otzma Yehudit had been “part of the equation.”

The religious Zionist party not just for the religious

Peretz, 63, was elected to head the Jewish Home in early February, replacing Naftali Bennett, who abandoned the national religious party several weeks earlier in order to establish the New Right party with Ayelet Shaked.

The former IDF chief rabbi and Air Force pilot has since worked to prevent the Jewish Home from hemorrhaging support as it fluctuated between eight seats in some polls to as few as five.

IDF Chief Rabbi Rafi Peretz teaches an IDF orphan how to put on tefilin for the first time at a Bar Mitzvah ceremony organized by the IDF Widows and Orphans Organization, in an undated photograph. (courtesy)

The fear is particularly relevant given the close race that remains between the top two parties — Likud and Blue and White — with roughly two weeks left until the April 9 vote.

As in the last election, Netanyahu is warning that his continued premiership is in danger. This messaging in 2015 brought what polls suggested was as many as five seats worth of Jewish Home voters to abandon the party and “strategically” vote Likud. This propelled the ruling party to 30 seats, but it left the Jewish Home with just eight instead of the 12 it had in the previous Knesset.

While a similar scenario appears to be playing out in 2019 with the Blue and White party proving to be formidable competition to Likud, Peretz said he was less worried about Jewish Home voters abandoning the national religious faction. “Our base is much more hardcore now. It does not swing back and forth.”

“We have invested a great deal in meeting with our supporters and explaining to them why there needs to be a strong party to the right of Netanyahu that will speak clearly about our values and about sovereignty over all the Land of Israel,” he said.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett, left, with Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, at a faction meeting of the Jewish Home party at the Knesset on February 5, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Given the overwhelming support within the party for the merger with the extremist Otzma Yehudit, Peretz could be accurately reading the tea leaves.

Still, the fledgling politician also wishes to “remind” Israelis that while Jewish Home (and the URWP that it leads) may be the party of the religious Zionist movement, it is not only for religious voters.

“Religious Zionism does not belong to a specific subset,” the Jewish Home leader insisted, also rejecting the notion that his party represents the more hardline national religious voters while other right-wing parties exist to serve the more secular and moderate Israelis.

“I’m a man of the periphery,” said Peretz, a resident of Naveh near the Gaza Strip, in an apparent attempt to distance the slate he now leads from its historic image as a party led by the national religious elite.

“My students came from areas where the religiosity is far more moderate,” he said of the Otzem pre-military academy that he established in 1992 and led for decades.

Our base is much more hardcore now. It does not swing back and forth,

“Our party’s wingspan is very broad. It extends from Druze and Bedouin to traditional and secular Israelis all the way to Haredim,” Peretz claimed, extending his own arms to demonstrate.

He highlighted some of the values that religious Zionist institutions, his party among them, seek to impart: service, volunteerism, education — “these are not religious values.”

“It’s true, we’re not a party that says we’re half-religious, half-secular,” Peretz said, referring to the New Right. “We aren’t embarrassed to consult with rabbis and we proudly wave the flag of Torah.”

In bolting the Jewish Home in December, Bennett and Shaked argued that they had been shackled by the national religious leadership, who Netanyahu felt were “in his pocket.”

The Jewish Home under Bennett largely shied away from issues of religion and state, preferring to pick its battles elsewhere.

Jewish Home party chief Rafi Peretz at the party’s primary headquarters in Ramat Gan on February 4, 2019. (Flash90)

Peretz vowed that under his leadership, the faction would not “blur anything when it comes to the Jewish character of the state.” He emphasized maintaining the status quo when it comes to public observation of the Sabbath as well as prayer decorum at the Western Wall.

“There needs to be a very clear statement that at the Kotel there is separation between men and women,” he said, but he clarified that women can “pray however they want” in the section designated for them.

Peretz also offered support for the deal, currently frozen, that would have seen the expansion of the pluralistic prayer pavilion at the Western Wall and the establishment of a first-of-its-kind body made up of non-Orthodox Jewish leaders to oversee the site.

In July 2017, Netanyahu — at the behest of ultra-Orthodox coalition partners –decided to delay progress of the agreement reached between the government and non-Orthodox Jewish leaders in January 2016.

“If there is an agreement, I’m not going to go and call for it to be ripped up. I respect Diaspora Jewry very much,” Peretz said.

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