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Holocaust, Hitler jokes in far-right campaign ad cause rift in alliance

Betzalel Smotrich disavows video put out by partner Itamar Ben Gvir; incident also sparks fight with right-wing rival Naftali Bennett, who is accused of plotting with left

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)
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)

A campaign ad from extreme-right political candidate Itamar Ben Gvir, that falsely put Holocaust and Hitler jokes into the mouth of an Arab Labor party candidate, sparked a row on Saturday in the newly formed Religious Zionism Party slate.

Ben Gvir, from the Otzma Yehudit faction, released a campaign video on social media that attacked Arab and left-wing lawmakers, as well as right-wing rival Naftali Bennett.

Following the release, Betzalel Smotrich, who recently partnered with Ben Gvir, claimed he was unaware of the video and disavowed the content.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently orchestrated a deal between Kahanist Ben Gvir and Religious Zionism’s  Smotrich for a joint run that recent polls have predicted will pass the Knesset electoral threshold. Netanyahu hopes to thus avoid a loss of right-wing votes and bolster his chances of forming a government after the election.

The campaign ad headlined “Watch: Lapid’s dream government” shows a video of a fictional group text conversation between left-wing political leaders including the Arab majority Joint List’s Ayman Odeh, Meretz’s Tamar Zandberg, Labor’s Merav Michaeli and Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid.

The group jokes around in the video and adds right-wing party leaders Bennett of Yamina and Gideon Sa’ar of New Hope.

The video shows a fictional text from Labor candidate Ibtisam Mara’ana, saying, “I asked a Holocaust survivor one time, ‘What’s your number?’ hahaha.” Mara’ana, an Arab Israeli filmmaker, has been the subject of controversy in recent weeks.

At another point, Ma’aranana posts an image of Hitler with a heart emoji.

Ben Gvir has been petitioning against allowing Mara’ana to run for the Knesset over past remarks that she had deliberately ignored an annual two minutes of silence held on Memorial Day, which honors Israel’s fallen soldiers and terror victims. She has since apologized and said she now honors the siren.

In the ad, Lapid then agrees to demands from Arab lawmakers in the fictional chat, including canceling the right of return, which allows diaspora Jews to emigrate to Israel, and for establishing a “Hamas Recognition Day.”

Zandberg calls for a day to commemorate former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and a monthly visit to his gravesite.

At the end of the ad, Lapid writes, “Believe me, we’re lucky there’s no government with Ben Gvir.”

The ad closes with images of Ben Gvir and Smotrich and the text, “Winning Together.”

But later Smotrich disavowed the video.

“The video that was released tonight without our knowledge is a serious matter… the Holocaust is out of bounds. Period,” he said.

It also sparked a spat between Smotrich and Bennett, who were faction partners in the last Knesset.

Bennett wrote on Facebook, “Bezalel, the time has come to say enough.”

“There is a limit. I have been quiet until now over all these attacks because I did not want to fight with you but tonight you crossed a line.”

Naftali Bennett (R) and Bezalel Smotrich of the right-wing Yamina party hold a press conference in Jerusalem on May 14, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Smotrich accused Bennett of aiming to form a government with Lapid and Michaeli, but conceded, “The debate needs to be held within boundaries.”

In another response, Smotrich said, “Naftali, I already clarified that the video is a serious incident and that I don’t stand behind it. Great that you’re celebrating this and doing a lap. Now let’s talk about values.”

Ben Gvir is in the third slot on the merged Religious Zionism Party slate, which most polls in the last few days have shown clinching 4-5 seats in the March 23 elections. To enable to deal to go ahead, Netanyahu also gave the 28th spot on the Likud slate to a candidate from Religious Zionism.

A vote-sharing agreement signed between Likud and Religious Zionism last week allows the parties to ensure that extra votes they win that don’t add up to a Knesset seat do not go to waste. Instead, the combined leftover votes go to the party closest to winning another seat — and are often sufficient to add that seat to its tally, making the votes potentially decisive in a close race.

Netanyahu recently said that Ben Gvir would be a part of his coalition after the March 23 election, but said he “is not fit” to be a member of his cabinet. Asked repeatedly why Ben Gvir cannot be a cabinet member if he is good enough to be a part of his coalition, Netanyahu refused to answer. Asked if he believes Ben Gvir, who has called for the expulsion of “disloyal” Arab Israelis, is racist, Netanyahu said: “His positions are not mine.”

New elections, the fourth since April 2019, were called in December after the power-sharing government of Likud and Blue and White failed to agree on a budget by a December 23 deadline.

 

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