Fearing wasted votes, PM urges fringe parties on far-right to join forces

Netanyahu pushing Jewish Home, National Union, and Otzma Yehudit to unite, rather than fall below electoral threshhold, amid worries over surge from bruited centrist union

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Bezalel Smotrich celebrates at the elections for the chairman and the Knesset list of the National Union party, at the Crown Plaza hotel in Jerusalem, on January 14, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/FLash90)
Bezalel Smotrich celebrates at the elections for the chairman and the Knesset list of the National Union party, at the Crown Plaza hotel in Jerusalem, on January 14, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/FLash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been reaching out to leaders of the smaller right wing parties, urging them to unite in order to avoid a scenario where one or two factions do not receive enough votes in April to cross the electoral threshold.

Netanyahu asked National Union Chairman Bezalel Smotrich to merge with the far-right Otzma Yehudit party, in addition to calling on Shas Chairman Aryeh Deri to form a united ultra-Orthodox bloc with the United Torah Judaism Party, Channel 12 reported Sunday.

In a statement, Netanyahu said he was trying to get several fringe parties to merge in the hope that they would be able to pass the Knesset’s threshhold and support him, should he be tasked with forming a government after the April 9 national election.

“Netanyahu is calling on Jewish Home to work toward uniting with National Union and Otzma [Yehudit], so that the right-wing bloc will not lose seats, which could result in the formation of a leftist government,” he said in a statement.

Itamar Ben Gvir (R) speaks at the election campaign launch for the far-right Otzma Yehudit faction in Bat Yam, on January 5, 2019. (Otzma Yehudit)

Smotrich’s National Union is slated to enter into negotiations with the leadership of the Jewish Home, which on Monday is expected to ratify the nomination of former IDF chief rabbi Rafi Peretz to lead the faction. The two parties are expected to once again run on a joint list, but fresh off a leadership victory of his own, the hardline Smotrich is said to be gunning for the top spot.

Both Jewish Home and Shas have been straddling the electoral threshold of 3.25 percent of the vote in recent weeks, leading Netanyahu to worry over the possibility of wasted right wing votes. Many of Jewish Home’s voters have fled to New Right, helmed by former party leaders Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked.

National Union and Otzma Yehudit are both seen as falling well below the threshhold without a merger.

Party lists must be finalized by February 21.

Recent polls have shown a merger between Benny Gantz’s Israel Resilience party and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid could surpass Likud and unseat Netanyahu.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L), Zvi Hauser (C) and Moshe Ya’alon attend the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, on March 10, 2013. (Miriam Alster/Flash90/File)

In the past, Netanyahu has bolstered his position by siphoning off votes from right-wing parties, but with the electoral threshhold relatively high, has been forced to focus his campaigning elsewhere out of fear that they will be left out of the Knesset altogether, according to Channel 12 news.

Netanyahu’s support of a merger with extremist Otzma Yehudit, which would increase the likelihood of the far-right faction’s entry into the political arena, drew criticism from opposition lawmakers.

“The fact that Netanyahu is working to bring into the Knesset the Kahanist faction of (Itamar) Ben Gvir, (Michael) Ben-Ari and (Bentzi) Gopstein is further evidence that he has lost his brakes altogether,” Lapid tweeted, referring to the members of Otzma Yehudit, who openly endorse the ideology of Meir Kahane. The far-right activist rabbi’s Kach party was banned in Israel under anti-terrorism laws in the 1980s.

“It’s not just that [Menachem] Begin would have been shocked. Three years ago, Netanyahu himself would have been horrified by the idea,” Lapid concluded.

On Saturday, Netanyahu reached out to Likud officials in a bid to reserve more spaces on the party’s ticket, in what many saw as a signal that he was seeking to bring in high profile figures or a smaller faction.

Shas party leader and interior minister, Aryeh Deri (R), and United Torah Judaism party MK Yaakov Litzman, during a joint party meeting at the Knesset on June 19, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Likud is currently polling at around 30 seats, but could bolster those numbers if it joins up with a rival on the right. Israel Resilience, a new centrist party led by former general Benny Gantz, is predicted to snag around 19 seats if elections were held today. Polls held last week, though, showed an Israel Resilience merger with fellow centrists Yesh Atid, helmed by Gantz, getting around 35 seats, and the bloc could further strengthen if center-left parties also join forces with it.

Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid (L) and Israel Resilience party chief Benny Gantz. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90, Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Netanyahu’s appeal for three reserved spots will come before party members for a vote Tuesday, when the party also holds its primary. In a letter explaining the request, Netanyahu said he is “convinced that this is necessary to increase our chances of winning the elections.”

“Dear Likud members, we are facing a difficult campaign. The left and the media are making tremendous efforts to overthrow the Likud government. We must prepare accordingly,” he wrote.

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