Embattled Jewish Home head says he’ll allow a party leadership contest in June

Embattled Jewish Home head says he’ll allow a party leadership contest in June

Days after cancelling criticized agreement with Otzma Yehudit despite vowing he wouldn’t, Rafi Peretz says he wants to rehabilitate his national religious party

Jacob Magid is the settlements correspondent for The Times of Israel.

Rafi Peretz, leader of the Jewish Home party, in Petah Tikva, February 20, 2019. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)
Rafi Peretz, leader of the Jewish Home party, in Petah Tikva, February 20, 2019. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

Jewish Home chairman Rafi Peretz announced Monday that his national religious faction would hold a leadership primary shortly after the upcoming March election as part of an effort to “rehabilitate” the slate following several tumultuous months plagued by infighting.

In a letter to members of the Jewish Home central committee, Peretz said a leadership primary as well as a series of other moves, which he did not detail, would “strengthen our [political] home, increase the public’s confidence in it and re-connect as many sectors as possible with the religious Zionist party.”

The letter came against the backdrop of what is regarded as Peretz’s worst period in politics since being elected Jewish Home chairman nearly a year ago, which culminated in him folding Jewish Home into the Naftali Bennett-led Yamina alliance for March’s elections.

It began with a January 10 interview with the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper in which the former chief IDF rabbi suggested that gay couples are not “natural.” The comment was lambasted by lawmakers across the political spectrum and led to public protests calling for the education minister’s ouster, with several municipality’s even holding specially scheduled lessons on LGBT acceptance in a clear act of repudiation.

Bezalel Smotrich (R) and Rafi Peretz (L) of the Union of Right Wing Parties hold a press conference after a meeting with President Reuven Rivlin at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on April 16, 2019, (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Later that week, Peretz saw his longtime political partner, National Union chairman Bezalel Smotrich team up with Bennett’s New Right, leaving him alone with Otzma Yehudit. The Jewish Home chairman had merged with the far-right party last month in a move aimed at ensuring he would maintain his post as chairman of a joint slate by forcing the hand of Smotrich, who was not believed to have had any other options but to accept the No. 2 spot Peretz offered him.

Bennett, at the time, had declared his intention to cater his New Right party to a more liberal flank of the national religious camp — one with which the hardline, religious Smotrich would not likely have jived. But worried that the more moderate demographic would not be large enough to carry his party across the electoral threshold, as happened in the April 2019 election, Bennett agreed to take in Smotich, leaving the Jewish Home-Otzma Yehudit list without the National Union.

Jewish Home leader Rafi Peretz, right, with Itamar Ben Gvir, left, of the extremist Otzma Yehudit party on December 20, 2019. (Courtesy)

Bennett offered to fold in Peretz’s Jewish Home as well, but did not extend such an offer to Otzma Yehudit, whose slate of self-described disciples of the extremist rabbi Meir Kahane was a step too far for the New Right chairman.

Peretz responded that he would not back out of his agreement with Otzma Yehudit — which the central committee agreed to approve in a meeting that turned violent as supporters of MK Moti Yogev, who opposed the chairman’s inking of the merger behind his back, clashed with backers of Peretz in an embarrassing scuffle widely shared on social media. But in the final hours before the party filing deadline however, the Jewish Home chairman buckled to pressure from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as well as senior rabbinic figures in the national religious camp, who warned him that his slate would not cross the electoral threshold.

Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked attend a press conference in Ramat Gan, July 21, 2019. (Photo: Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The embarrassing U-turn, which left Otzma Yehudit to run on its own, included Peretz deleting a tweet, reading “my word is my bond,” just three minutes after he posted it as part of an effort to assure the far-right party that he was not backing out of their deal. Jewish Home went on to merge with the expanded New Right, returning the three national religious parties to the exact same “Yamina” formula on which they ran last September before all of their infighting.

Reflecting on the move in his letter to party members, Peretz said, “I had to make a difficult and unpopular decision contrary to my promise and in complete contradiction to my own integrity that has accompanied me throughout my life.

“Leadership is making tough decisions even if they carry a heavy cost,” he explained.

Peretz said the leadership primary would likely be held in June, after a government is formed. He called on Smotrich and Yamina colleague Ayelet Shaked to run, though notably made no such recommendation to Bennett.

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