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Bucking call to pull out of election, far-right party says: ‘We’re here to stay’

Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben Gvir says other parties were unable to meet his demands; Netanyahu had pushed him to drop out, fearing wasted right-wing votes

Itamar Ben Gvir, head of the Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Strength) party holds a press conference in Jerusalem on March 1, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Itamar Ben Gvir, head of the Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Strength) party holds a press conference in Jerusalem on March 1, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The far-right Otzma Yehudit party, which had faced pressure from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to end its election run, declared on Sunday that it would press on with its campaign.

With less than 12 hours to go before ballot boxes open on Monday morning, party chairman Itamar Ben Gvir told a Jerusalem press conference, “We are here to stay.”

Netanyahu had been pushing Ben Gvir to pull out of the election race for months, seeing his extremist faction as a spoiler that would siphon tens of thousands of potentially crucial votes away from the Likud and Yamina parties, but ultimately not make it into the Knesset.

Ben-Gvir said he had met with all of the parties in the right-wing camp, including  Netanyahu’s Likud party, and demanded “something ideological” from them. Not only do other parties fail to enact right-wing ideology, “they are not even able to declare right-wing policies,” said Ben Gvir.

He listed some of his demands that were not met, including ending Qatari payments to Hamas that Israel allows into Gaza on a monthly basis, altering the formation of the committee tasked with appointing judges, ending Jordanian custodianship over the Temple Mount, and vowing that there will never be a Palestinian state.

Polls ahead of the March 2 election have shown Otzma Yehudit getting around 1-2% of the vote, well below the 3.25% threshold needed to enter the Knesset, but enough to possibly cost at least a seat in the Knesset for the bloc of right-wing and religious parties that Netanyahu leads.

Netanyahu is hoping to stretch the bloc past the 61 seats needed for a majority in the 120-seat Knesset. Polls have shown Netanyahu’s bloc at up to 58 seats, compared to 55 for a centrist-left bloc lead by Gantz, leaving Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party, predicted to win at least seven seats, holding the balance of power.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits at Ministry of Health Call Center in Kiryat Malachi on March 1, 2020. (Flash90)

Earlier Sunday, Otzma Yehudit claimed it had reached a deal with the Likud party, according to which it would drop out of Monday’s election, but that Netanyahu walked back the agreement.

“Surprisingly, this morning, Likud officials updated [us] that the prime minister had withdrawn from the agreement,” the far-right party said.

Responding to the Otzma Yehudit revelation, Likud said there were “legal difficulties” with the deal initially reached, but that it was working to solve them before Monday’s election.

Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz lambasted Netanyahu for his dealings with Ben Gvir, saying the prime minister “is prepared to sell himself and the values of the Likud movement to racists.

“He already offered the Kahanists money and jobs and now he is offering them a real union, including a reserved spot [on Likud’s electoral slate] and an obligation to Kahanist ideology,” Gantz wrote on his official Twitter account.

Despite its extremist views, Otzma Yehudit drew over 80,000 votes in September’s elections, which would have equaled about two Knesset seats, were the threshold to enter parliament lower.

Ben Gvir has claimed that overtures for him to drop out included promises of tempting jobs in influential bodies, ministerial positions, an ambassadorship, and even money, all of which he rejected.

Blue and White party chief Benny Gantz holds a press conference at Kfar Maccabia on March 1, 2020. (Avshalom Sassoni /Flash90)

Netanyahu was heavily criticized at home and abroad in February 2019, after engineering a deal for Otzma Yehudit to join two other right-wing factions, a pact that almost saw Ben Gvir enter the Knesset in the elections in April of that year.

The party is made up of followers of the late extremist rabbi, Meir Kahane. 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.

Before the September elections, and after failing to convince leaders of the right-wing Yamina party to include Otzma Yehudit in their alliance, Netanyahu waged an aggressive campaign against the latter.

Despite the possible impact of Otzma Yehudit on Netanyahu’s chances of forming a majority coalition, on Sunday, the prime minister remained confident of success, telling a Likud campaign rally that information he had received just hours earlier showed the right-wing bloc heading for 59.7 seats in the election.

“We are very close to victory,” Netanyahu told the rally at Airport City, which is part of Ben Gurion airport.

Attorney Shachar Ben Meir filed a petition against Netanyahu with the Central Elections Committee, accusing the prime minister of breaking election laws, which forbid the publication of polling data in the three days before an election.

Ben Meir demanded that Likud be fined for the violation, Haaretz reported.

The Likud party responded in a statement, saying the ban is against broadcasting or publishing polls and that Netanyahu had made “a verbal announcement” rather than giving the results of survey.

Elections in April and September failed to end the deadlock, leading to unprecedented third elections within a year.

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