Bennett resists merger with Kahanist Ben Gvir, despite pressure from Netanyahu
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Ben Gvir says he'll take photo down 'for sake of unity'

Bennett resists merger with Kahanist Ben Gvir, despite pressure from Netanyahu

Noting Otzma Yehudit candidate has photo of Hebron killer Goldstein in his living room, New Right head says Likud should take in far-right slate if it’s worried about wasting votes

Jacob Magid is the settlements correspondent for The Times of Israel.

Defense Minister Naftali Bennett speaks at a conference organized by the Makor Rishon newspaper at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem, December 8, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Defense Minister Naftali Bennett speaks at a conference organized by the Makor Rishon newspaper at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem, December 8, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In a blunt Wednesday statement, the New Right’s chairman, Naftali Bennett, refused to unite his party with the Jewish Home so long as it is allied to the extremist Otzma Yehudit, citing the latter party’s support for the perpetrator of the 1994 massacre of Muslim worshipers in Hebron.

Bennett, the defense minister, rejected mounting pressure from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud and others on the right to include Otzma Yehudit’s Itamar Ben Gvir on a joint Knesset slate with Jewish Home, noting that Ben Gvir infamously keeps a photograph of Baruch Goldstein hanging in his living room.

“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 said.

“That’s so self-evident that I’m amazed I’m being asked to explain it at all.

“Imagine a member of the US Congress hanging a photograph in his home of someone who murdered dozens of Jews at prayer. Does that seem reasonable to you?

“I don’t care how much you pressure me. I can’t even consider this. It won’t happen. This is my final decision,” Bennett wrote.

The photo of mass-murderer Baruch Goldstein hung in the home of Otzma Yehudit chairman Itamar Ben Gvir. (Screen capture/Channel 13)

Ben Gvir has defended the photo in the past, saying he hangs it out of respect for Goldstein, who saved many Jewish lives as a doctor, before he entered Hebron’s Tomb of Patriarchs and shot dead 29 worshipers and wounded 125 others.

Bennett’s refusal would leave United Jewish Home — the joint Jewish Home-Otzma Yehudit faction — to run on their own in the upcoming election and risk not crossing the electoral threshold.

Bennett has offered to bring in Jewish Home to his expanded New Right slate, which as of Tuesday also includes Bezalel Smotrich’s National Union. However, Jewish Home chairman Rafi Peretz has refused to renege on the merger agreement he inked last month with Otzma Yehudit and Ben Gvir.

If Bennett and Peretz stick to their guns, the national religious camp will be represented in the upcoming election by two separate slates with minimal ideological differences between them. While Bennett’s New Right casts itself as more socially liberal than the Jewish Home, National Union and Otzma Yehudit, in merging with the National Union on Tuesday, he further clouded the ideological differences between his slate and United Jewish Home. Smotrich 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.

Less than an hour after Bennett published his post Wednesday, Ben Gvir responded with one of his own.

“Hello, Naftali. I read what you wrote. I have explained countless times that I am against harming innocents,” he said.

Ben Gvir went on to say he would remove the photo of Goldstein from his living room “for the sake of unity and right-wing victory in the elections… and in light of the fact that the fate of the people of Israel and the Land of Israel are at stake, and on the horizon lies the danger posed by the establishment of a government that will expel Jews from their homes.”

Bennett did not immediately respond to what appeared to be Ben Gvir’s last-ditch attempt to place the ball back in the New Right’s court. However, a meeting between Jewish Home’s Peretz and Bennett later on Wednesday evening stalled over Otzma Yehudit, prompting Netanyahu to invite the two men to meet with him in an effort to mediate an 11th-hour deal.

Itamar Ben Gvir of the Otzma Yehudit party speaks during a ceremony in Jerusalem marking the 27th anniversary of the killing of extremist rabbi Meir Kahane, November 7, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Though it seemed to be a red herring, a spokesman for the Jewish Home party released a statement of his own regarding the Goldstein picture, saying Peretz had been working behind the scenes to convince Ben Gvir to remove it.

“Now, after the announcement of Ben Gvir [regarding the photo], responsibility for the future of religious Zionism, for the right-wing future and for the future of the land of Israel lies with Naftali Bennett,” he said.

At the conclusion of his initial post, Bennett directed his frustration toward the Likud party, which has been calling on Bennett to take in Jewish Home and Otzma Yehudit by the midnight party filing deadline in order to avoid wasted right-wing votes.

“Likud’s demand that I put Ben Gvir on the slate I’m leading is inappropriate,” he said. “Likud friends — if you want him so much, put him on your own slate!”

For the third election in a row, Likud has been urging religious-Zionist parties to ensure that the Kahanist-inspired Otzma Yehudit party is part of a joint slate for the race.

“The left has united — they’re not going to lose any votes. Now the right must do everything to prevent wasting votes,” Likud said Tuesday in a statement.

New Right leader Naftali Bennett (L) and Jewish Home chairman Rafi Peretz. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

New Right is on the relatively liberal side of the religious right, and argued as late as Monday that if it runs as a separate party, it could attract voters from the center and from secularist Yisrael Beytenu to the right as well as Blue and White voters to the left.

On Tuesday, New Right inked an alliance with the hard-right National Union party, which had previously been in negotiations with Jewish Home. 

New Right has invited Jewish Home to join the merger, though Bennett has insisted that the party jettison a previous agreement to run with Otzma Yehudit, drawing angry criticism from Likud.

According to Channel 12 news, Netanyahu threatened to fire Bennett as defense minister if he does not agree to run with Otzma Yehudit.

Peretz told both Bennett and Netanyahu on Tuesday he would not back out of his agreement with Otzma Yehudit in order to join forces with the New Right-National Union alliance.

From left to right: Naftali Bennett, Ayelet Shaked and Bezlale Smotrich at a campaign event in the West Bank settlement of Elkana on August 21, 2019. (Ben Dori/Flash90)

In April, New Right ran alone and failed to enter the Knesset, while Otzma Yehudit joined with Jewish Home and National Union and won several seats.

The prime minister was angrily criticized for engineering the merger with Otzma Yehudit at the time, drawing even a rare protest from pro-Israel lobby AIPAC and 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.

Jewish Home leader Rafi Peretz, right, with Itamar Ben Gvir, left, of the extremist Otzma Yehudit party on December 20, 2019. (Courtesy)

The New Right alliance with National Union has also raised some eyebrows. National Union’s Smotrich last year spoke out in favor of an Israel governed by religious law and said that liberal values infringe on the rights of religious Israelis. He and Peretz have also made a host of homophobic statements in the past.

The New Right-National Union alliance came just a day after New Right pledged to go it alone in the March 2 elections.

Subsequently, Bennett met with Zehut chairman Moshe Feiglin in an effort to convince him to join the New Right as well.

Zehut, which combines far-right nationalism and small-government libertarianism, ran in elections last April but failed to clear the minimum electoral threshold.

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