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Far-right leader Ben Gvir declares solo run, blames Smotrich for collapse of talks

Given favorable polls and friction with Religious Zionism, Otzma Yehudit chief claims his hand has been forced, but there’s still a month to go before lists must be finalized

Leader of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party MK Itamar Ben Gvir declares his faction will run independently in the November 2022 election, during a press conference at Kfar Maccabiah on August 15, 2022. (Courtesy: Otzma Yehudit)
Leader of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party MK Itamar Ben Gvir declares his faction will run independently in the November 2022 election, during a press conference at Kfar Maccabiah on August 15, 2022. (Courtesy: Otzma Yehudit)

Right-wing extremist leader MK Itamar Ben Gvir declared on Monday night that his Otzma Yehudit party will run independently in the November 1 general elections, and accused Religious Zionism party leader MK Bezalel Smotrich, with whom he allied for last year’s elections, of failing to negotiate in good faith on a continued partnership.

“I have tried every way to achieve unity between us, but since Bezalel has refused every concession of mine, I declare tonight with a full heart that Otzma Yehudit will run by itself in the elections,” said Ben Gvir, at a press conference in Kfar Maccabiah.

Ben Gvir and Smotrich have been engaged in stop-start negotiations for weeks now to renew the political alliance that saw their two parties run on a joint list in the March 2021 elections, when they together won six seats. Polls on Sunday showed their alliance was heading for 9-11 seats this time.

Despite Ben Gvir’s declaration, an entire month remains before the September 15 deadline for submitting party lists, meaning that there is still time for negotiations on a joint run to be revived and concluded successfully.

Ben Gvir has conducted frequent media appearances to urge Smotrich to both expedite the negotiations and give his party improved terms for forming a united faction.

And Otzma Yehudit has of late been boosted by a series of favorable polls, some of which have shown a joint list receiving more seats if Ben Gvir, rather than Smotrich, headed the slate, and others that have predicted Otzma Yehudit would win more seats than the far-right Religious Zionism party if they were to run separately.

MKs Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir visit outside Damascus Gate in Jerusalem, on April 18, 2021. during clashes between Palestinians and Israeli police. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A Channel 12 poll Sunday night, for instance, showed Otzma Yehudit taking eight seats and Religious Zionism just five, if the two parties run independently.

“First, my friend Bezalel Smotrich refused to negotiate at all. Afterward, he agreed, but apparently just for appearances, and now he is demanding six of the first eight spots [on the electoral list],” claimed Ben Gvir at his press conference.

Ben Gvir asserted that he had made a series of concessions to Smotrich, including choosing not to seek the leadership of the joint list, not demanding more seats for Otzma Yehudit than for Religious Zionism, and even not to insist on an equal number of places on the slate for the two parties’ candidates.

He also claimed that Smotrich had apparently chosen to court only “classic” religious-Zionist voters, and said that Otzma Yehudit, by contrast is targeting “residents of the periphery, the north, south, the religiously traditional, secular, ultra-Orthodox, soldiers, and youth.”

Smotrich, he said, “has chosen not to run together because he wants [to represent], in principle, classic religious-Zionists.”

Related: Understanding the ominous rise of Israel’s most notorious ultra-nationalist

Previous negotiation crises between Otzma Yehudit and earlier incarnations of Religious Zionism have, in the past, led to Likud leader and former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to intervene and cajole the factions to unite, out of fear of the possibility that one of them would fail to cross the electoral threshold and damage the pro-Netanyahu bloc’s chances of forming a government.

Earlier on Monday, following Ben Gvir’s announcement that he would be holding a press conference, Smotrich urged his far-right colleague not to run separately, saying that dividing the right-wing religious camp would harm the pro-Netanyahu bloc.

“We have another month before the electoral lists are closed. Come back to the negotiation room — let us talk about everything, discuss everything, and we will arrive at an agreement as to how best to run together to maximize our strength and bring about a victory for the national camp,” said Smotrich.

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