Israel elections 2019

Jewish Home and National Union agree to reunite for Knesset run

National Union boosts standing after a week of talks, snagging number 2 spot on national religious list and rights to ministerial portfolio

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

From left, Orit Strok, Yifat Erlich, Betzalel Smotrich, Rafi Peretz and Ofir Sofer posing after agreeing to form a joint Jewish Home National Union Knesset slate February 14, 2019. (Courtesy)
From left, Orit Strok, Yifat Erlich, Betzalel Smotrich, Rafi Peretz and Ofir Sofer posing after agreeing to form a joint Jewish Home National Union Knesset slate February 14, 2019. (Courtesy)

Leading national religious parties Jewish Home and National Union reached an agreement late Thursday evening to run on a joint slate in the upcoming elections, maintaining a partnership that over the past weeks appeared on the fritz as each party adapted to its new leadership.

Under the arrangement, scratched out on a hand-written note, Jewish Home leader Rafi Peretz will head the combined list, while National Union chair Bezalel Smotrich MK will follow at number two and be given the ministerial portfolio that the party would likely receive if it enters the governing coalition.

In the event that the joint party surprises in the elections and find itself in a position to receive a second ministerial portfolio, the post would be served in a rotation between the two factions. From the third spot and onward, the seats will be filled alternatively starting with Jewish Home’s Moti Yogev MK, followed by National Union director Ofir Sofer,  journalist-cum-Jewish Home lawmaker Yifat Erlich, former National Union MK Orit Strock and deputy defense minister Eli Ben Dahan.

The deal marks a boost for National Union to one of near-equal partnership with Jewish Home, which in the past had been viewed as the more senior member of the two. In the previous arrangement, the Jewish Home’s leader led the joint list in addition to receiving the first two picks of ministerial positions.

Peretz, a former army chief rabbi who was picked to lead the party last month in his first-ever political role, ceded significant concessions to National Union in order to retain the top spot on the slate, a Jewish Home official told The Times of Israel on Thursday night.

Head of the Jewish Home party Rabbi Rafi Peretz arrives to the party’s preliminary elections in Ramat Gan on February 4, 2019. (Flash90)

According to the agreement “all the decisions will be made with the consent of both factions, and the division of all the (government) positions will be in an egalitarian manner,”

Polls in recent weeks have indicated that the united party might still hover near the electoral threshold with around four to six seats, a decline from the eight it won in the 2015 elections when Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked were still leading the party.

In a surprise December decision to bolt and establish the New Right, Ministers Bennett and Shaked said that they had been shackled by the national religious leadership, who Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu felt were “in his pocket.”

A handwritten agreement between Jewish Home and National Union, reached February 14, 2019. (courtesy)

While most analysts predicted the merger would eventually be reached given the relatively limited ideological differences between the two parties, the reality of a likely poorer showing in the upcoming election meant Peretz and Smotrich were fighting over an even smaller pool of seats, but with roughly same amount of candidates as eager to be placed into the next Knesset.

Even after uniting, the party may still miss out on the Knesset. Most projections show the party getting four seats or falling below the electoral threshold of 3.25 percent.

With the merger deal inked, the joint list is expected to enter additional negotiations to further expand the slate with the extremist Otzma Yehudit and Yachad parties. However, chances of a further expanded union appeared bleak Thursday night.

“A reading of the agreement shows that the members of the Jewish Home and National Union did not take into account or leave room for Otzma Yehudit power and other parties,” said the slate led by former MK Michael Ben Ari and ultra-nationalist activists Itamar Ben Gvir, Baruch Marzel and Bentzi Gopstein.

Otzma Yehudit leaders (from L-R) Michael Ben Ari, Itamar Ben Gvir, Baruch Marzel and Benzi Gopstein in a crowdfunding campaign video on November 5, 2018. (Screen capture/Otzma Yehudit)

“Ozma Yehudit will run in the upcoming elections along with other elements, and will prove to be the surprise of the next election,” the statement added, indicating a degree of bitterness from the far-right faction over having been left out of the union inked by the national religious parties.

There was no immediate comment from Yachad, led by former Shas head Eli Yishai. In 2015, Yishai’s party ran independently, but did not make it into the Knesset.

Peretz and Smotrich faced immense pressure over the past week to reach a merger deal, as senior members of the national religious camp as well as prominent officials in the broader right-wing bloc implored the two sides to get settle their differences in order to avoid separate runs, all-but ensuring both factions would fail to reach the Knesset.

Settlers leaders such as Samaria Regional Council chairman Yossi Dagan warned of a “repeat of 1992” in which infighting among right wing parties brought down then prime minister Yitzhak Shamir’s coalition, allowing for the rise of Yitzhak Rabin, who ushered in the “disastrous” Oslo process, he warned.

Education Nafatli Bennett, left, and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked deliver a statement during a press conference in the Knesset, on November 19, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The combination of Bennett and Shaked’s desertion with the election of a younger, more prominently supported Smotrich put National Union in a position to ask for more in its negotiations with the Jewish Home, leading to the protracted talks.

The initial deal presented by Smotrich would have seen the National Home chair at the top of the slate with Peretz receiving the ministerial post, if the united party joined the government and received one, the Jewish Home official said. In addition, National Union would only have received 40 percent of the Knesset seats, being given two slots in each five on the slate.

Despite ceding some power, Peretz sounded an upbeat note over the deal.

“Tonight religious Zionism won,” he said said in a statement. “I welcome the agreement signed this evening with our natural partners in the National Union — an agreement that was reached with the understanding of the magnitude of the time and challenges facing us.”

Head of the National Union faction MK Bezalel Smotrich during a conference of the Movement for the Quality of Government, in Modiin, February 4, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

In a separate statement, Smotrich acknowledged that negotiations had been “long and exhausting.”

The Likud party congratulated the Jewish Home and National Union on the deal, but reiterated its call for the unified faction to bring  the more small factions into the fold.

In the past, Netanyahu has bolstered his position by working to siphon off votes from right-wing parties by telling voters they must vote Likud if he is to remain prime minister, but he is reportedly hesitant about embarking on such an endeavor ahead of April’s elections before feeling confident that it wouldn’t end in his more “natural” coalition partners not crossing the electoral threshold.

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