Naftali Bennett said Thursday that his national-religious Yamina alliance would stick together following the upcoming elections, after a flurry of last-second deal-making brought it back together for another run while leaving out the extremist Otzma Yehudit party.
The agreement to reunite with Jewish Home and National Union, reached right before the Wednesday night deadline for parties to file their slates of candidates, capped a hectic week of political maneuvering that began with Bennett’s vow that the New Right party would run alone in the elections.
Bennett clarified Wednesday that the unity deal was a full merger rather than a “technical bloc” that would see Yamina’s constituent parties go their separate ways after the March 2 vote, as they did after the September elections.
“A united faction before and after the elections,” he tweeted. “I’m proud to lead a movement that joins all the ideological right and all the shades of religious Zionism.”
After securing a unity deal Tuesday with the National Union party, Bennett reached an agreement late Wednesday with Jewish Home leader Rafi Peretz after the latter broke off his partnership with the far-right Otzma Yehudit.
Bennett conditioned Peretz’s inclusion in the alliance on breaking with Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben Gvir, citing as an example of Ben Gvir’s extremism a photograph on the politician’s living room wall of Baruch Goldstein, the perpetrator of the 1994 Tomb of the Patriarchs massacre of Muslim worshipers.
In rejecting Otzma Yehudit, Bennett bucked pressure from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to take in the far-right party, including threats to fire him as defense minister. The premier fears that votes for Otzma Yehudit will be wasted in the elections because the party may not clear the electoral threshold, leaving the right far short of a parliamentary majority.
Ben Gvir, a disciple of the late extremist rabbi Meir Kahane, had harsh words for Bennett following the last-minute agreement with Perez, but reserved the brunt of his ire for Peretz.
“A liar who stuck a knife in my back. When he called me he was nothing and we helped him. Now he’s politically worthless,” Ben Gvir said in an interview with Army Radio on Thursday morning.
He vowed Otzma Yehudit would not drop out before the elections despite having little chance of picking up enough votes to enter the Knesset and noted that Bennett had previously been open to them running together.
“Before Rosh Hashanah he told me ‘we need to run together’ and suddenly he says no,” Ben Gvir said.
Bennett’s Yamina indeed offered Ben Gvir the eighth spot on its slate before the elections in September, which he turned down in favor of an independent run.
Ben Gvir also warned Netanyahu, who pushed for Yamina to take in Otzma Yehudit, against Bennett.
“The day after the elections Bennett will stick a knife in his back, just as he stuck [a knife] in me. The public wants different politicians, ones who don’t lie or scheme,” he said.
Transportation Minister Yariv Levin, a key political operator for Netanyahu, also criticized Bennett and his allies for their handling of the unity talks.
“This is not the way leadership that wants to win elections behaves,” he told Kan public radio.
Levin said Netanyahu was on the verge of firing Bennett as defense minister on Wednesday if he and Peretz faile dto achieve a merger of the national-religious parties.
“We were very close to a situation of Bennett’s dismissal as defense minister. Now, when a union has been achieved, the need [to fire him] went down significantly,” he said.
Bennett was appointed defense minister in November, a move one of Netanyahu’s allies admitted at the time was aimed at preventing him from joining a potential government led by Blue and White chair Benny Gantz.
Gantz, a former IDF chief of staff, noted Thursday that Netanyahu’s last-ditch efforts to broker a union of national-religious parties came shortly after Palestinian terrorists in the Gaza Strip fired mortars at Israel.
“As missiles are being fired at residents of the south, Netanyahu is trading the defense portfolio to bring the heirs of Kahane into the Knesset and doing everything to form an immunity government for himself,” Gantz wrote on Twitter, referring, respectively, to the late extremist rabbi who Otzma Yehudit leaders are followers of and the premier’s request to be granted parliamentary immunity from a corruption indictment against him.
Jewish Home Moti Yogev, the No. 2 in the party, announced he would quit after being placed 11th on the Yamina list. Former Jewish Home MK Eli Ben Dahan, placed even lower down, similarly said he may quit.
The reconstitution of Yamina marked Bennett’s return to the pinnacle of national-religious politics, after his political future was left in doubt following his New Right’s failure to enter the Knesset in April’s elections.
Bennett, who led Jewish Home before leaving to form New Right, saw his fortunes revived when Netanyahu was unable to form a government and pushed through a vote to call fresh elections for September.
As No. 4 in Yamina, which was led in the last elections by longtime Bennett ally Ayelet Shaked, Bennett again entered the Knesset and has since seen his stock rise following his appointment as defense minister.
Before this week’s merger agreements were inked, television polls forecast New Right winning six seats in the elections, while Jewish Home and National Union were predicted to squeak into the Knesset if they were to run together.