Education Minister Naftali Bennett, the leader of the New Right party, said on Tuesday that members of the extremist party Otzma Yehudit were not fit to sit in the Knesset and that there was a wide gulf between their views and his.
Bennett joined a growing chorus of denunciations of Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power), whose leaders are disciples of the late ultranationalist rabbi Meir Kahane. Otzma Yehudit is projected to win at least one seat in the Knesset after the national religious Jewish Home — Bennett’s own former party — voted overwhelmingly last week to approve a merger with the party.
Otzma Yehudit candidate Itamar Ben Gvir fired back at Bennett, pointing out what he said were shortcomings of the previous two governments in dealing with Palestinian terrorism and West Bank settlements, both issues on which Bennett prides himself as having a strong, hawkish stance. He also claimed Bennett had initially backed Jewish Home’s unification with Otzma Yehudit.
The merger deal was facilitated by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a bid to strengthen a future Likud-led coalition following the April 9 election, and has since been widely condemned, including by other Israeli lawmakers — though not from Likud — and mainstream US Jewish organizations.
“There is a wide gap between my positions and those of Otzma Yehudit,” Bennett told the Kan national broadcaster in a radio interview. “In my opinion Kahane’s people are not fit to sit in the Knesset.”
Still, Bennett, who in December broke away from Jewish Home to form the New Right, charged that left-wing criticism of the deal with Otzma Yehudit was politically motivated. While left-wing parties have slammed the right for including Otzma Yehudit within their ranks for the election, the left would allow itself to align with Arab parties to prevent a right-led coalition, he said.
“Those who undermine the State of Israel are not fit to sit in the Knesset,” Bennett said, referring to Arab parties’ support of the Palestinians in their conflict with Israel. “There is a desire here shackle the hands of the right to prevent it from forming a government. Anyone who undermines the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state should not be in the Knesset.”
Ben Gvir, speaking to the Srugim website, which caters to the national religious community, accused Bennett of being a partner in weak governments.
“It would be worthwhile for Minister Bennett to do some thorough checking before he decides to attack those who won’t give in and won’t mince words on the subject of the Land of Israel,” Ben-Gvir said. “Minister Bennett was a partner in two governments during whose terms terrorists were released, Jewish settlements were destroyed … and the south was abandoned to hundreds or rockets fired by Hamas and the miserable kite terror, which received no response.”
Ben Gvir was apparently referring to the release in 2013 of over 100 Palestinian prisoners as a goodwill gesture to promote ultimately doomed peace talks with the Palestinians, the dismantling of illegal West Bank outposts, and months of Gaza border violence that at times nearly escalated into open war between Israel and Gaza’s rulers, the Hamas terror group.
“Bennett’s hypocrisy is incredible,” Ben Gvir said. “Just two weeks ago he called on the Jewish Home to joint with Otzma Yehudit, citing responsibility for so-called right-wing votes, and suddenly when that same alliance Bennett supported is made, he takes the left flank and tries to steal votes” from the Jewish Home-Otzma Yehudit slate.
“This is typical behavior for a man who abandoned his party and left it wounded,” he said. “Anyone who abandoned his party will abandon the Land of Israel.”
Jewish Home No. 2, MK Bezalel Smotrich, whose National Union party folded into the Jewish Home a week before the Otzma Yehudit deal, tweeted in response to Bennett’s attack that “there are those who lead with responsibility, and others who suffer from a serious credibility problem.”
The extremist Otzma Yehudit is the spiritual successor to Kahane’s Kach party, which was barred from the Knesset under a Basic Law outlawing incitement to violence and later banned entirely in Israel.
It 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.
On Monday, former defense minister Avigdor Liberman, who resigned from the government in November inprotest of what he claimed was the weak handling of the Gaza violence, also criticized Otzma Yehudit, saying he would not speak with any of its members if he saw them in the Knesset.
Also Monday, the leftist Meretz and Labor parties separately filed petitions with the Central Elections Committee calling for the Otzma Yehudit party to be barred from running in upcoming elections.
Otzma Yehudit, which is led by Michael Ben Ari, dismissed the two petitions, calling them “gimmicks” that the two parties were using to gain support ahead of elections.