Reporter's NotebookNetanyahu is 'no political genius,' sneers Ben Gvir

Broken by exit polls, extremist Otzma Yehudit bitterly casts blame everywhere

With all TV surveys determining party of Kahanist disciples hasn’t crossed electoral threshold, Itamar Ben Gvir blasts PM and Yamina for having campaigned against his slate

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

Otzma Yehudit supporters watch the exit poll results at the campaign headquarters in Jerusalem on September 17, 2019. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)
Otzma Yehudit supporters watch the exit poll results at the campaign headquarters in Jerusalem on September 17, 2019. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

Members and supporters of Otzma Yehudit watched in silence as exit polls from each of the three major Israeli TV networks indicated that the far-right party had failed to cross the electoral threshold in Tuesday’s elections.

The channels aired their results successively, forcing the several dozen activists present at the party’s campaign headquarters in Jerusalem’s Givat Shaul neighborhood to endure one zero after another as it appeared next to faction leader Itamar Ben Gvir’s smiling face on the large projector that extended from floor to ceiling in an underground open office bullpen.

“We said there would be no right-wing government without Otzma Yehudit over and over and over again. But unfortunately there were those that didn’t listen,” Ben Gvir told reporters and the handful of supporters who remained in the room some 45 minutes after the results were aired.

In Channel 12’s exit poll, the right-wing bloc of Likud, Shas, United Torah Juaism and Yamina reached just 57 seats — four shy of the 61 needed for a Knesset majority. On Channel 13, the bloc reached 54 seats and on the Kan public broadcaster 56 seats.

Otzma Yehudit chairman Itamar Ben Gvir adresses the media from his campaign headquarters in Jerusalem on September 17, 2019. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

In the weeks leading up to Tuesday vote, the far-right party campaigned on the notion that its ability to cross the electoral threshold would decide whether or not Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would be able to form a right-wing government. Without Otzma Yehudit — Ben Gvir argued — the seats garnered by Likud, the national religious Yamina along with the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties would not add up to the magic 61 number needed to form a truly right-wing coalition.

For their part, Likud and Yamina asserted that Otzma Yehudit was never going to cross the threshold and that its candidacy was simply taking much needed votes from the other right-wing parties that needed them dearly.

Ben Gvir contended that his party has a “base that would not have voted for Likud and would not have voted for Yamina because they did not integrate our demands.”

Otzma Yehudit held intensive negotiations up to last month’s filing deadline with Yamina in an effort to run with a national religious slate for the second straight election in a year. Yamina No. 4 candidate Naftali Bennett reportedly blew up the effort over ideological disagreements with the extremist party. Ben Gvir said that talks had also been held with Likud to reach a deal in which Otzma Yehudit would drop out in exchange for a ministerial post or other policies pledges from Netanyahu.

Otzma Yehudit chairman Itamar Ben Gvir at the party headquarters in Jerusalem during the elections on September 17, 2019. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

After thanking party member and activists, who greeted him Tuesday night with relatively somber recitations of a popular Hebrew chant that translates roughly to “hoo-ha, look who’s coming, the next justice minister!,” Ben Gvir jumped straight to blaming those he felt were responsible for the disappointing exit poll results.

While other members of the party who spoke earlier had been more critical of Ayelet Shaked and her Yamina party, Ben Gvir said Netanyahu was primarily at fault for Otzma Yehudit’s failed performance. Throughout the days and weeks leading up to Tuesday’s elections, the prime minister on more than a handful of occasions urged right-wing voters to avoid supporting Otzma Yehudit because it would not cross the electoral threshold anyway.

“They say he’s a political genius, but these results show that he’s nothing of the sort,” Ben Gvir sneered.

The Otzma Yehudit chairman blasted “arrogant” Yamina leaders Shaked, Bennett and even the more hard-line Bezalel Smotrich, whose views he largely shares.

Finally, Ben Gvir went after the national religious camp media, namely Arutz Sheva and Channel 12 reporter Amit Segal, whom he said had adopted the Yamina and Likud parties’ Otzma Yehudit talking points claiming that he had no chance of crossing the threshold.

Otzma Yehudit chair Itamar Ben Gvir votes in Kiryat Arba, September 17, 2019. (Courtesy)

Upon finishing his blame-list, he assured reporters that he was “nor bitter nor broken” and walked away from the cameras as the remaining supporters sang “Am Yisrael Chai” (the nation of Israel lives).

While a handful of polls in the days leading up to elections had predicted Otzma Yehudit would cross the threshold, the atmosphere at the party’s campaign headquarters even before the exit polls were released was not exactly positive.

Senior party members had ordered the several dozen activists present to telephone potential voters to make sure they had made it to the polls in the 90, 60, 30 and even 15 minutes that remained before the 10:00 p.m. deadline.

It was difficult to spot a supporter in the basement bullpen above the age of 30. The activists were a mix of yeshiva students in black and white ultra-Orthodox garb and national religious youth with long side-locks and worn out kakhi pants and t-shirts. Women were few and far between.

Some of the supporters present were former clients of Ben Gvir, who is known for representing hilltop youth —  young far-right activists who build illegal outposts on isolated hilltops in the West Bank and sometimes carry out hate crime attacks against Palestinians and their property.

“Of course we’re frustrated, but there are other ways for us to contribute to Israel outside the political arena,” said 20-year-old supporter Yair, who declined to provide his last name.

“Every day we’re on the ground settling the land and this is without the help of Bibi and Smotrich. Just because Itamar [Ben Gvir] isn’t in the Knesset doesn’t mean we won’t continue winning on the ground where it matters,” the Otzma activist said smiling. “God willing, of course.”

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