Far-right leader says he will quit race if PM meets near-impossible demands

For him to drop out, Otzma Yehudit head says Netanyahu must raze Bedouin hamlet by Friday afternoon, cancel Oslo Accords and nix pluralistic section of Western Wall

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 February 26, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Itamar Ben Gvir, head of the Otzma Yehudit party holds a press conference in Jerusalem on February 26, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The head of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party announced Wednesday that he would be willing to drop out of the race for the Knesset, but presented a list of far-reaching demands, all but ensuring he will continue his campaign.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been pushing Itamar Ben Gvir to pull out of the election race for months, seeing his extremist faction as a spoiler that will funnel tens of thousands of votes away from the Likud and Yamina parties but ultimately not make it into the Knesset.

Ben Gvir’s list of demands included measures, such as canceling the Oslo accords and razing a Palestinian village within days, that would be impossible for any Israeli leader to commit to, let alone carry out.

In a press conference called to announce the demands Wednesday, Ben Gvir said he would only pull out of the race if Netanyahu met all five demands:

  1. Canceling the Oslo Accords signed with the Palestinians in 1994 and a declaration that Israel will not even agree to grant the Palestinians autonomy over any areas in the West Bank.
  2. Ceasing Qatari payments to Hamas that Israel allows into Gaza on a monthly basis.
  3. Altering the formation of the committee tasked with appointing judges.
  4. Ending Jordanian custodianship over the Temple Mount and nixing a pluralistic prayer section at the Western Wall.
  5. Razing the Bedouin hamlet of Khan al-Ahmar by 2 p.m. Friday.

“If you do all of this, we are willing to pull out of the race,” Ben Gvir said, smiling.

While some of the measures are supported by Likud and its partners, at least on paper, the deadline on the razing of Khan al-Ahmar alone would make it an impossibility. The West Bank hamlet is already slated to be demolished, but Israeli officials have seemingly halted those plans amid an international outcry.

This September 30, 2018 photo shows a general view of the area near the West Bank town of Abu Dis and al-Eizariya to which the Bedouin villagers of Khan al-Ahmar are slated to be evacuated. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

Netanyahu has also vowed to safeguard the status quo on the Temple Mount, which includes Jordanian custodianship.

Ben Gvir has repeatedly vowed to remain in the race despite warnings from right-wing leaders that he has no chance of entering the Knesset.

Polls ahead of the March 2 election have shown Otzma Yehudit getting around 1.5% of the vote, well below the 3.25% threshold needed to enter the Knesset.

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.

The surveys have also shown the Likud-led right-wing and religious bloc several seats short of a Knesset majority.

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

Itamar Ben Gvir, head of the Otzma Yehudit party arrives at a press conference in Jerusalem on February 26, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

On Tuesday, the Kan public broadcaster reported that Netanyahu had sought to schedule a meeting with Rabbi Dov Lior, a spiritual leader of Otzma Yehudit in an effort by proxy to convince the far-right slate to pull out of the race rather than waste thousands of right-wing votes.

However, Lior refused to take the meeting, saying he would not compromise on his principles.

The refusal led Netanyahu to reach the conclusion that continued efforts to persuade Ben Gvir to withdraw from the election would not work, Kan reported.

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

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 which almost saw Ben Gvir enter the Knesset in the April election last year.

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 racism accusations.

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 Otzma.

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