A day before final electoral slates must be presented, the far-right Religious Zionism and Otzma Yehudit parties announced on Wednesday that they had signed a merger agreement to run jointly in the upcoming election.
The alliance will also include the anti-LGBT Noam party.
The merger, agreed upon by Religious Zionism party leader MK Bezalel Smotrich and Otzma Yehudit chair Itamar Ben Gvir, was reportedly brokered by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself in an effort to prevent either or both of the satellite parties from failing to pass the electoral threshold and wasting right-wing votes.
Ben Gvir will be third on the merged slate, meaning he will win a seat in the Knesset if the merged ticket clears the 3.25% Knesset threshold.
מתאחדים. למען עם ישראל, ארץ ישראל ותורת ישראל. pic.twitter.com/GIH6chisDB
— איתמר בן גביר (@itamarbengvir) February 3, 2021
Otzma Yehudit is made up of followers of the late racist rabbi Meir Kahane, a former MK whose Kach party was banned from the Knesset in the 1980s — the first instance of a party being banned for racism. Otzma Yehudit 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.
The prime minister was said to have promised Smotrich that he’d place a candidate of Smotrich’s choice on Likud’s slate and offer him at least one ministerial portfolio if he merged with Otzma Yehudit. Kan news reported that Netanyahu has also promised to allow new settlement construction in the West Bank in exchange for the merger going forward, and to give Smotrich all credit for the move.
Ben Gvir’s former running mate, ex-MK Michael Ben-Ari, was disqualified from running for the Knesset over accusations of racism.
A similar merger two years ago was denounced by major US Jewish organizations AIPAC and the AJC. AIPAC called Otzma Yehudit a “racist and reprehensible party.”
Earlier this week, Otzma Yehudit agreed to also run with the Noam party, formed by the head of the Har Hamor yeshiva, Rabbi Tzvi Tau, and focused almost exclusively on combating LGBT acceptance. The slate dropped out days before the September 2019 election after Netanyahu reportedly promised to shelve plans for a mixed-gender prayer area at the Western Wall in Jerusalem in exchange for it bowing out of the race.
The fringe party funded provocative billboards and video ads with the slogan “Israel chooses to be normal,” and claimed the LGBT community has “forced its agenda” on the rest of Israeli society. It also likened LGBT and Reform Jews to the Nazis.
According to the deal signed Wednesday between the Religious Zionist party and Otzma Yehudit, Smotrich will lead the joint slate followed by another representative from his faction. Ben Gvir will be placed third on the list and a representative from Noam will be in sixth.
Additionally, Otzma Yehudit will be given the 10th slot and Noam the 11th.
The deal also takes into account the possibility that the Jewish Home, another right-wing party, will also merge before Thursday’s deadline. Jewish Home chair Chagit Moshe was said to be considering an offer to take the spot on the Likud slate as part of a deal to bring her party into the alliance.
In February 2019, Netanyahu was heavily criticized at home and abroad 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 April 2019 election.
Before the September 2019 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 Yehudit.
He did the same ahead of the March 2020 elections, after then-Jewish Home chairman Rafi Peretz broke his agreement to run with Otzma Yehudit and agreed to once again merge his faction into Yamina, leaving Ben Gvir out in the cold.
However, Otzma Yehudit has refused to drop out of the running in all cases, regularly winning tens of thousands of votes, but not enough to enter parliament. The prime minister sees the extremist faction as a spoiler that has repeatedly funneled votes away from other right-wing parties, while ultimately failing to make it into the Knesset.
A Channel 13 poll Tuesday showed that while neither Smotrich’s Religious Zionism party nor Otzma Yehudit were expected to pass the 3.25% electoral threshold to enter the Knesset on their own, a joint slate could win six seats.
However, the poll showed that with or without the two parties entering the Knesset, Netanyahu is expected to fall short of the 61 seats he needs to form a coalition.
A coalition of his many rivals is possible, but remains highly problematic, given their wildly differing ideologies.
The elections — the fourth in two years — were called after the power-sharing government of Likud and Blue and White failed to agree on a budget by a December 23 deadline.
Like the previous three votes, the election is largely seen as a referendum on Netanyahu’s rule amid his ongoing trial on corruption charges, as well as his government’s varied success battling the pandemic.