'We'll run until the end, to save the right wing government'

Bucking pressure, far-right Otzma Yehudit says it’s staying in Knesset race

Chairman Itamar Ben Gvir claims he received offers as lavish as an ambassador posting if he agreed to pull his far-right party out of contention

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Itamar Ben Gvir, head of the Otzma Yehudit party, holds a press conference in Jerusalem, on January 20, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Itamar Ben Gvir, head of the Otzma Yehudit party, holds a press conference in Jerusalem, on January 20, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Otzma Yehudit party head Itamar Ben Gvir announced Monday that his far-right party will remain in the race “until the end,” defying pressure from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other right wing officials who had called on his faction to drop out, rather than risk falling below the electoral threshold for the second straight election.

“This evening, I announce to you and also to the prime minister that the Otzma Yehudit secretariat has decided that we will run until the end in order to win and to save the right wing government” Ben Gvir said at a Jerusalem press conference.

He claimed that his party had a better chance of making it into the Knesset than the right-wing bloc had at winning 61 seats without the support of his Kahanist-inspired faction.

Despite its extremist views, Otzma Yehudit still drew over 80,000 votes in September elections, which would have equaled about two Knesset seats had the party crossed the threshold to enter parliament.

Likud and other right-wing factions fear a repeat in March if Ben Gvir stays in the race. Most polls show his faction again falling below the 3.25 percent of the vote needed to enter the Knesset.

Ben Gvir claimed that overtures for him to drop out including promises of sweetheart jobs in influential quasi-government bodies, ministerial positions and even an ambassadorship, all of which he rejected.

“It’s no secret that officials in the coalition have offered me many proposals in the last few days that would have kept me comfortable for years.”

“The Prime Minister’s Office has denied [these offers], but they know very well which important officials in the coalition offered to make me minister. And not just minister. I was offered a position in KKL JNF Jewish National Fund, the World Zionist Organization… and even an ambassador posting,” Ben Gvir claimed.

Otzma Yehudit party leader Itamar Ben Gvir speaks to reporters at the Knesset, January 15, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Apparently believing the Otzma Yehudit chairman’s claim, Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz tweeted that Netanyahu was willing to place Israel’s foreign relations in the hands of a Kahanist in order to ensure himself parliamentary immunity.

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

The party is made up of followers of 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. Ben Gvir’s former running mate, ex-MK Michael Ben-Ari, was disqualified from running for the Knesset last year, over his support for racism.

On Sunday, Channel 12 reported that the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties were weighing a deal with Otzma Yehudit, in which one of them would commit to giving a non-MK ministerial post to Ben Gvir, in exchange for him dropping out and endorsing the ultra-Orthodox faction instead.

Likud MK Miki Zohar, a close confidant of Netanyahu, expressed his keen support for the arrangement in private conversations, according to the report.

The announcement Monday came after Otzma Yehudit leaders had been slated to meet to discuss the offers.

Ben Gvir pointed out that none of the offers presented to him by right-wing officials were regarding government policy, claiming that those trying to convince him to drop out were only interested in “using us and then throwing us away.”

The Otzma Yehudit chairman said that his party’s slogan for the upcoming campaign would be “Ben Gvir, his word is his bond,” in a clear slight to Jewish Home chairman Rafi Peretz.

The latter tweeted out the same phrase hours ahead of the party filing deadline in an effort to make clear that he would not walk back on his merger agreement with the far-right party. However, the tweet was deleted three minutes later, as Peretz succumbed to pressure from Netanyahu and other national religious officials who convinced him to merge with Naftali Bennett’s New Right party, rather than risk not crossing the electoral threshold in a joint run with Otzma Yehudit.

Netanyahu had pushed for Otzma Yehudit to be included in the Bennett-led Yamina alliance, but Bennett refused on ideological grounds.

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