'I never thought Peretz would bring racists into Knesset'

Gantz: In ‘normal world,’ minister would be fired for pact with Kahanists

Blue and White head slams education minister Peretz, but says PM pushed Jewish Home-Otzma Yehudit deal to win immunity from graft charges; Meretz: ‘Kahanism on its way to Knesset’

Blue and White party chairman Benny Gantz speaks during a faction meeting in Tel Aviv on December 12, 2019. (Flash90)
Blue and White party chairman Benny Gantz speaks during a faction meeting in Tel Aviv on December 12, 2019. (Flash90)

Blue and White chief Benny Gantz led criticism of a renewed electoral pact between Jewish Home and the far-right Otzma Yehudit party on Friday, calling it a “sad day” for Israel’s national-religious community. He further suggested Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s fingerprints were all over the merger deal.

Jewish Home and Otzma Yehudit announced Friday they would reunite ahead of elections in March, after having run together on a joint slate with the National Union in elections earlier this year.

Among Otzma Yehudit’s leaders are followers of the late extremist rabbi Meir Kahane and a number of its members have been barred from running for the Knesset on grounds of racism. The party’s current leader, Itamar Ben Gvir, was a teen activist in Kach, the Jewish supremacist party founded by Kahane which was eventually banned under Israeli law for incitement to racism and later declared a terrorist group. Among Kahane’s proposals — none of which passed — during his tenure as Kach’s lone Knesset member in the mid-1980s was revoking the citizenship of Arab Israelis and outlawing marriage and sex between Jews and non-Jews.

“This alliance will bring victory for the right-wing bloc,” Ben Gvir said earlier Friday, speaking alongside Peretz after they had finalized their alliance.

In criticizing Education Minister Rafi Peretz, the head of Jewish Home, Gantz noted their years-long acquaintance, with the former having served as chief military rabbi when the Blue and White commanded the Israel Defense Forces.

“I never thought that Rafi Peretz, an educator and man of principles, would lead a move to bring Meir Kahane’s racist heirs into the Israeli Knesset. This union won’t create legitimacy for the racism of the Otzma Yehudit party but rather delegitimize Rabbi Rafi and his party,” Gantz wrote on Facebook.

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

Gantz charged that Netanyahu, who orchestrated the initial union together with the National Union party ahead of the April elections, was behind the move. The Blue and White leader said it was part of an effort by the premier to avoid charges in a series of graft cases. Netanyahu denies wrongdoing and has until January 1 to ask the Knesset for immunity.

“There isn’t anything he didn’t try to do in the last election campaigns to bring Ben Gvir and his successors [to the Knesset] for one reason — he knows they will give him immunity,” Gantz said.

He also said in a “normal world,” Netanyahu would fire Peretz as a government minister over the alliance with Otzma Yehudit.

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz (2nd-L) and Jewish Home-National Union head Rafi Peretz (R) carry Torah scrolls as they dance during Simchat Torah celebrations in Kfar Chabad, October 21, 2019. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

“But in Netanyahu’s transition government, immunity take precedence,” he said.

Blue and White No. 2 Yair Lapid denounced the Jewish Home-Otzma Yehudit merger earlier Friday, calling it a “disgrace” to religious Zionism.

MK Tamar Zandberg of the left-wing Meretz party said the agreement showed “Kahanism is on its way to Knesset,” after no Otzma Yehudit members were elected in April or September’s elections.

Labor MK Merav Michaeli at a faction meeting in the Knesset, December 5, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Labor MK Merav Michaeli attributed the tie-up to Israel’s control of the West Bank, from which Jewish Home and Otzma Yehudit oppose withdrawal as part of any peace agreement with the Palestinians.

“This is the result of years of living outside and above the law, in territories without a sovereign or border. If we don’t want all the State of Israel to look like this, we must put a border with Judea and Samaria,” she wrote on Twitter, using the Biblical names for the West Bank.

In a joint statement announcing the deal, Jewish Home and Otzma Yehudit said the pact was aimed at ensuring another right-wing government, which “involves connecting all parties to the right of the Likud,” the ruling party headed by Netanyahu.

“We must not reach a situation where one of the parties will not pass the electoral threshold and as a result, thousands of right-wing votes will go to waste,” they said.

The parties called on Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who heads the National Union, to “join ranks” and unite religious Zionists.

The deal is seen as a blow for Smotrich, who — polls suggest — is the most popular of the national religious slate leaders. The Jewish Home-Otzma Yehudit agreement left open spots on the united list for National Union candidates if they agree to join, but Smotrich will be given the No. 2 spot while the less popular and less experiences Peretz will remain at the helm.

Otzma Yehudit party member Itamar Ben Gvir (R) speaks with National Union faction leader Betzalel Smotrich during a campaign event in Bat Yam, April 6, 2019. (Flash90)

In April, the parties ran as the Union of Right-Wing Parties, which won five seats in the Knessets. However, after Netanyahu failed to form a majority coalition, he dissolved parliament and called fresh elections for September 17. Those elections also failed to deliver a government and new elections were called.

Otzma Yehudit broke its alliance with Jewish Home in June amid accusations that the party was not honoring its pre-election agreement.

As part of the reunion, Otzma Yehudit will be given the third, sixth and ninth spots, all but solidifying Ben Gvir’s entry into the Knesset after he fell short in the year’s two previous tries. The move also marks the further normalization of the once beyond the pale party brought into the fold by Netanyahu in April. Then, he agreed to reserve a spot on the Likud list for a Jewish Home MK and promised the national religious party a pair of senior government posts if they agreed to merge with Otzma Yehudit.

Friday’s announcement came a day after MK Ayelet Shaked said she would run in the upcoming elections as No. 2 in the New Right party, whose leader Naftali Bennett kicked off an independent campaign bid earlier this week.

In the last elections, Shaked headed the Yamina alliance, which included New Right, Jewish Home and National Union.

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