Likud sets Aug. 3 primaries; Sa'ar won't sit under Netanyahu

Ben Gvir urges far-right allies to merge, but seeks bigger slice of nationalist pie

Otzma Yehudit leader issues plea to Bezalel Smotrich to again run on joint slate, says positions in combined list should be selected by research into public support

Tobias (Toby) Siegal is a breaking news editor and contributor to The Times of Israel.

Otzma Yehudit party leader Itamar Ben Gvir speaks during a press conference ahead of the upcoming elections, in Jerusalem, July 11, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Otzma Yehudit party leader Itamar Ben Gvir speaks during a press conference ahead of the upcoming elections, in Jerusalem, July 11, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Far-right lawmaker Itamar Ben Gvir called on his ideological compatriots to rally around a united flag Monday, as negotiations over party mergers meant to consolidate power ramped up ahead of the November 1 elections.

But in a twist, Ben Gvir suggested that independent research should be conducted to determine how many slots each party would get in a united list and their placement. Bezalel Smotrich currently heads the Religious Zionism party, which merged with Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit faction ahead of last year’s election.

Ben Gvir is hoping that partnering with Smotrich now, rather than after the Religious Zionism party holds its primaries, will give him a better chance of guaranteeing desired slots in a future government; convincing party members to concede slots won in the primaries in favor of Otzma Yehudit members might prove more difficult.

The negotiations between Ben Gvir, Smotrich and the heads of other potential partner factions are shaping up to be more challenging than before, with both Ben Gvir and Smotrich confident about their base and their prospects of crossing the threshold required to enter the Knesset, even if they decide to run separately.

However, despite his seemingly growing support, Ben Gvir is likely not as eager to run alone in the upcoming elections as Smotrich would be if forced to. Smotrich knows he enjoys a broad base of voters and would probably regain some votes lost from the more liberal religious Zionists who oppose the party’s partnership with Ben Gvir.

As such, Ben Gvir hopes to secure a merger with Smotrich as soon as possible.

Ben Gvir proposed that an external committee hold surveys to determine the level of public support his Otzma Yehudit and the other factions that make up Religious Zionism enjoy to determine the specifics of how they would allocate positions in a future merger.

“Hold a professional study, research, across the entire right,” he urged. “And an outside panel will examine the relative strength of all the parties.”

“I promise to accept the division that would be recommended by this comprehensive research and I have no doubt that my colleague Betzalel Smotrich will also agree, as he suggested the same thing ahead of the last election,” he said.

Head of the Religious Zionist Party MK Bezalel Smotrich leads a faction meeting at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on June 27, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Ben Gvir’s maneuvering comes as the political parties are gearing up for the upcoming elections, with several parties contemplating mergers and with politicians in other parties jockeying for positions amid party primaries.

The comments from Ben Gvir, an extremist considered beyond the pale for many of Israel’s politicians, came a day after Benny Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party and Gideon Sa’ar’s center-right New Hope party announced a merger ahead of November’s election.

Ben Gvir sought to portray the new center-right alliance as leftists due to their ongoing opposition to sitting with Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu.

“Yesterday we saw the left unite in order to win the elections. Sa’ar and Gantz are doing whatever is necessary for them to beat the right. They know that in order for them to win they need to merge now,” Ben Gvir said at a press conference from a Jerusalem hotel.

Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit faction partnered with the Religious Zionism party along with the anti-LGBT party Noam to gain six seats and enter the Israeli parliament in 2021, in a move orchestrated by Netanyahu.

Both Ben Gvir and Smotrich have indicated their intention to run together in the upcoming round of elections as well, but Ben Gvir is pushing for stronger representation for his faction within the combined party slate.

“The left is maximizing its power, while at the right things are still shaky. We can’t fight for months and then get to the elections exhausted. The public does not deserve it, the State of Israel does not deserve it,” he said.

“If we are able to unite in time we could see a swift victory for the right,” he argued. “Every minute wasted without uniting causes us to lose votes.”

With Israel’s relatively high electoral threshold, smaller parties often feel the need to merge with each other to ensure they get into the Knesset.  Ballots cast for parties that don’t garner at least 3.25% of the vote are considered lost, often leading to tens of thousands of wasted votes.

A poll published Friday indicated that the bloc of parties loyal to Netanyahu could win 61 of the Knesset’s 120 seats in the upcoming election, enabling it to form a government. While the polls are often not accurate, they do influence the considerations of the politicians.

Ben Gvir and his Otzma Yehudit faction are followers of the late racist rabbi Meir Kahane, a former MK whose Kach party was banned from the Knesset in the 1980s — the first instance of a party being banned for racism. Otzma Yehudit supports encouraging emigration of non-Jews from Israel and expelling Palestinians and Arab Israelis who refuse to declare loyalty to Israel and accept diminished status in an expanded Jewish state whose sovereignty extends throughout the West Bank.

The party was considered too extreme to be included in any governing coalition until Netanyahu engineered the merger with Smotrich, in a bid to garner enough seats to form a coalition.

Ben Gvir has tried to portray his party as fundamental to any Likud-led government, citing internal polls that suggest that a merger with Religious Zionism would draw the new alliance 10-12 mandates in the upcoming election.

Religious Zionism party leader Bezalel Smotrich, left, and Itamar Ben Gvir of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party at an election campaign tour at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on March 19, 2021, four days before the general election. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Other recent polls have shown that if Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit party ran alone, it would win 4-5 seats.

Netanyahu’s Likud decided overnight to hold primaries for its Knesset slate on August 3, some three months before the elections.

In addition, the party’s leadership agreed to grant Netanyahu the right to personally appoint several candidates — in slots 14, 16, 28, 37 and 43 of the slate.

According to assessments, Netanyahu is likely to reserve some of those slots for several defectors from the Yamina party who helped to bring down the Bennett-Lapid government — Amichai Chikli, Idit Silman and Nir Orbach — as well as former IDF general Gal Hirsch. (Some Hebrew media reports suggest Orbach will not be on the Likud slate, but may be a minister.)

Meanwhile, Sa’ar attended a Calcalist conference on Monday and said that the purpose of the merger with Gantz’s Blue and White “is to prevent [Likud leader Benjamin] Netanyahu from returning to power and to pave the way toward a broad unity government headed by Benny Gantz.”

For that to happen, Sa’ar – once a close ally of Netanyahu – said that “as a first step, we need to prevent Netanyahu’s bloc of parties from reaching 61 seats.”

He added: “Israel needs to move forward, not backward. We won’t sit under Netanyahu as prime minister.”

Blue and White leader Defense Minister Benny Gantz (right) and New Hope leader Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar announce a merger of their parties, July 10, 2022. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

In an interview with Kan radio on Monday morning, New Hope member Ze’ev Elkin, who currently serves as construction and housing minister, said that despite the merger between his party and Blue and White, each slate will maintain its own identity.

“There are differences between New Hope and Blue and White — that’s why we’re working together in a combined slate of the two parties. We’re not deleting our identity as a right-wing party,” he stressed.

Elkin also stressed they were uniting to be an alternative to Netanyahu.

Addressing reports of former IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot considering joining the alliance, Elkin suggested he would receive third place in the list after Gantz and Sa’ar.

“I’d like to remind you that [Eisenkot] was considering joining New Hope in the last round of elections but eventually decided to stay out [of politics],” Elkin said.

Then-IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot attends a Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem on July 26, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Also speaking at the Calcalist conference on Monday, Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman repeated his pledge that he would not sit in any coalition with Netanyahu, suggesting that his party was the only one capable of “facing tensions between religion and state.”

He also tried to differentiate between the ultra-Orthodox community and the Haredi parties, to which he is opposed.

“Our position is not anti-Haredi; it is anti-Shas and United Torah Judaism,” he said, accusing the parties of perpetuating poverty among the Haredi public in Israel. “The way to fight poverty is not by approving more benefits – those perpetuate poverty,” the finance minister said.

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