Less than a year ago, senior officials in the Jewish Home party were all but begging former IDF chief rabbi Rafi Peretz to take the reins of the storied national religious party.
Still licking their wounds from the desertion of their chairman, Naftali Bennett,and his deputy, Ayelet Shaked, the remainder of the Jewish Home leadership were looking for a well-respected figure around whom the diverse national religious public could rally.
“There was no question that that man was Rafi Peretz,” said one senior Jewish Home official. He went on to cite Peretz’s contributions to the state as a helicopter pilot in the air force as well as the unifier image he had created for himself as founder and head of the Atzmona pre-military academy in the Gaza Strip.
During Israel’s 2005 pullout from the coastal enclave, Peretz led his students out of the community without clashing with the IDF’s evacuating forces, in a scene praised by security officials who had dealt with violent protests by settlers in other towns who refused to leave without a fight.
“We believed he’d be able to unite the party just like he had helped unite the nation,” the official said, explaining the decision to overwhelmingly approve Peretz’s appointment as head of Jewish Home last February.
Now, nearly a year and two elections later, that trust in Peretz — who according to the Jewish Home official had been hesitant to take up the position in the first place — has all but dissipated amid a series of PR disasters and a backdoor deal with the far-right Otzma Yehudit party.
The crisis of faith in Peretz climaxed on Friday, in the wake of comments the education minister made in an interview with Yedioth Ahronoth.
Peretz was asked how he would react if one of his children were gay.
“Thank God my kids grew up naturally and healthy. They’re building their families from Jewish values,” he responded. “In the religious public that lives according to the Torah, a normal family is a man and a woman…[We] don’t need to be ashamed that we live in this natural way.”
To be fair, Peretz was grilled on the issue by an interviewer who clearly had the minister’s July comments in support of gay conversion therapy in mind. The Jewish Home leader managed to avoid any controversial soundbites in his responses to the earlier questions on the issue, asserting that he respects all human beings and does not hold any prejudices.
“But eventually he slipped up and shared a unenlightened belief of his — one that most people in the national religious community don’t even hold,” one right-wing party official pointed out.
The move sparked an immediate uproar — and not just from those on the left of the political spectrum. Likud’s Amir Ohana, Israel’s first openly gay minister, blasted Peretz’s comments as “reprehensible” and “based on prejudice.” To make matters worse, the mayors of Tel Aviv, Herzliya and Givatayim instructed their schools to to open classes on Sunday with lessons on LGBT acceptance in a direct reproof of the education minister.
It’s all about the merger
But lawmakers from Jewish Home have remained silent in the 48 hours since Peretz’s remarks were published.
As opposed to the response to the fallout from the education minister’s July comments on conversion therapy, this time Peretz’s associates haven’t even tried asking fellow faction members to speak out in defense of their chairman. “Why would they enter that kind of minefield when they have nothing to gain?” one official in the national religious camp said.
Still, the official predicted Peretz’s comments would not scare away national religious voters. “It’s long been known that he doesn’t know how to conduct himself in an interview… People knew his views [on LGBT issues] in September and still voted for him.” Then, Peretz was in the No. 2 spot of the Yamina alliance led by Shaked, which went on to win seven Knesset seats.
Where the interview did cause damage, the official said, was to the possibility of Jewish Home merging with Bennett’s New Right party ahead of Wednesday’s deadline for factions to submit their slates for the March election.
Bennett’s party has sought to cater to a more moderate demographic of national religious voters uncomfortable with the hardline direction that Jewish Home has taken on social issues in recent years. In April, that proved to be too narrow a demographic on which to rely, and the New Right failed to cross the electoral threshold.
In September, Bennett agreed to merge with his former party, but since that election he has been named defense minister, leading to a rejuvenation in the polls. This regained confidence might lead him to conclude that he has little to benefit from a merger with not just Peretz and his controversial views on LGBT matters but also with Jewish Home’s new partners in the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit.
The national religious official warned Bennett against hubris, pointing out that polls ahead of the April elections predicted that he’d receive the same seven-odd seats that surveys are giving him now. However, he admitted that asking Bennett to “swallow a merger that includes Otzma Yehudit might be too much to ask for.”
Moreover, with Peretz’s popularity at an all-time low, the New Right may simply prefer to take in Bezalel Smotrich’s National Union party and leave Jewish Home on its own to try to make it across the electoral threshold come March.
The National Union and Jewish Home had been long-term partners, running on the same ticket in the past several elections. The two were believed to have moved further in sync with the election of Peretz, who comes from the hardal demographic of nationalist ultra-Orthodox Israelis traditionally represented by Smotrich’s party.
However, Peretz recently shocked much of the national religious political world in inking a deal with Otzma Yehudit head Itamar Ben Gvir instead of with Smotrich.
Initially, it was branded as a stroke of political genius, by a man many had thought a novice in the field. It allowed Peretz to maintain his position as head of the list, despite being far less popular than Smotrich, Shaked, Bennett and even Ben Gvir, according to a poll conducted by the Srugim national religious outlet. The merger left space for an additional alliance with the National Union and ensured that Smotrich would remain Peretz’s deputy and not the other way around.
The national religious camp official dismissed the possibility that the deal with Otzma Yehudit was part of a recognition by Peretz that the party would need to rely on far-right votes if the New Right was going to simultaneously cater to more moderate Israelis. “The deal was about putting pressure on Smotrich,” he asserted.
However, since the Jewish Home-Otzma Yehudit deal, the odds that Smotrich would join that alliance appear to have slimmed.
“We might be left all on our own with Otzma [Yehudit], which was not the idea of the merger,” the national religious official said, speculating that the New Right could agree to merge with the National Union but not with Jewish Home.
“[Peretz] can’t cancel the deal with Otzma [Yehudit] because then he’ll be seen as someone who doesn’t keep his word,” he added. “People don’t oppose a merger with Otzma [Yehudit] outright, but it should have been done with Bezalel [Smotrich] before in order to avoid the situation that we currently find ourselves in.”
The Jewish Home central committee is slated to convene on Monday evening to vote on the deal Peretz inked with Ben Gvir. Dozens of party activists issued an open letter to the Jewish Home leader blasting him over the merger, which was carried out behind closed doors without the knowledge of other faction members. However, the committee is widely expected to approve the deal given that the vote is set to take place just hours before the filing deadline, thereby limiting other merger options.
Peretz and Smotrich met on Thursday in an effort to patch things up and run on a joint slate. This was of course before the Yedioth interview that saw Peretz’s stock nosedive. As a result, Channel 12 reported Sunday that the Jewish Home head was considering vacating the chairman post for Smotrich and instead settling for the number two spot.
A right-wing party official who spoke on condition of anonymity did not deny the report, saying, “It might be wise for Rabbi Rafi [Peretz] to take it.”