The Jewish Home central committee voted overwhelmingly Wednesday evening to approve a merger deal with the extremist Otzma Yehudit party, in a move that could see the entrance of at least one lawmaker from the party of Meir Kahane’s disciples into the 21st Knesset.
The roughly 250 members of the internal body also gave their blessing for ongoing negotiations with Eli Yishai to reserve a spot for the Yachad chairman on the national religious party’s slate in the upcoming elections.
While the merger with Otzma Yehudit (“Jewish Power”) — which is led by former National Union MK Michael Ben Ari and far-right activists Itamar Ben Gvir, Baruch Marzel, and Bentzi Gopstein — did draw its fair share of opponents from within the religious party, that opposition dwindled in the final hours before the vote, in part because of sweeteners for the deal promised by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Following the Wednesday morning decision by the Otzma Yehudit leadership to accept the offer put forth by Jewish Home heads Rafi Peretz and Bezalel Smotrich — which saw the far-right faction receive the fifth and eighth spots on the united list — Jewish Home leaders held marathon talks with Netanyahu in his Jerusalem office. In the seven-hour meeting, the premier did his best to sweeten the deal, which he has worked intensively over the past several weeks to bring about.
Netanyahu has publicly argued that a failure of the smaller right-wing parties to unite could lead to many of them not crossing the electoral threshold, making way for the rise of an alternative government, which he brands a coalition of the left.
In that meeting, Netanyahu pledged to give two ministerial posts to the Jewish Home party were its members to agree to merge with Otzma Yehudit. A Jewish Home source told The Times of Israel that the education and housing portfolio were offered by the premier. In addition, the prime minister pledged to give the 28th spot on the Likud list — which is reserved for a candidate of Netanyahu’s choosing — to a Jewish Home MK.
Before the central committee voted, a number of senior party members were given an opportunity to address the internal body. These included Eli Ben Dahan, Motti Yogev, Nissan Slomiansky, Yifat Erlich, and Rafi Peretz.
Despite his own place on the list being pushed down two seats due to the merger, Ben Dahan explained why he nonetheless supported the union.
“The religious Zionist movement is more important to the State of Israel than what they’ll think about us,” said the deputy defense minister in an apparent recognition of the outcry from certain sectors of the public over his faction getting into bed with a party blasted by some opposition MKs as a “terrorist party.”
In addition to highlighting the gains received in the day’s negotiations with Netanyahu, Ben Dahan, Yogev and Slomiansky cited “trusted” internal polling that showed their party teetering on edge of the electoral threshold of 3.25 percent of the national vote.
Holding back tears, Yogev — who had opposed the merger as of Wednesday morning — explained how two members of his family told him that they would not vote for the Jewish Home if the deal with Otzma Yehudit went through. Nonetheless, he explained that the fear of his party not making it into the Knesset at all ultimately left him with no choice but to support the alliance.
Only Yifat Erlich, a longtime journalist who was added to the slate last week, voiced opposition to the alliance. In the past few days, she had vowed to leave the list if Otzma Yehudit were to join, but on Wednesday night she assured the central committee members that she would support whatever decision they made.
Erlich dismissed the alarming polling cited by her colleagues which showed Jewish Home failing to make it into the Knesset without the merger, saying the survey was of only 500 Israelis and did not represent the considerable support Jewish Home enjoys without Otzma Yehudit. Few in the crowd appeared to be buying her assessment, however, and she had a hard time continuing to speak without being shouted down.
When one member in the Petah Tikva auditorium tried to speak in her defense, another shouted him down, saying, “Enough already. Go and join (Israel Resilience party head Benny) Gantz if you are so upset.”
Speaking to The Times of Israel, Jewish Home member Yael Ben Yashar acknowledged that the merger could scare away more moderate voters, but was confident that “the deal will bring in slightly more.”
When he walked in to the hall shortly before the vote, committee members enthusiastically greeted Peretz, who went on to give his own remarks urging members to approve the deal he had reached with Otzma Yehudit.
The Jewish Home chairman spoke gravely of the party’s current predicament, using phrases such as “our home is in danger” and “our home is on fire.” He blamed its predicament chiefly on his predecessor Naftali Bennett, who bolted the party in December with Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked to start the New Right party. While in the past, Peretz has refrained from personally criticizing Bennett, he did not hold back Wednesday evening.
“Bennett planned to destroy our home,” said Peretz before addressing his predecessor directly. “What you did is difficult for me to even call a Jewish deed. This is not how a son of the religious Zionist movement acts… A vote for Naftali is a vote against religious Zionism,” he shouted to thunderous applause.
Peretz went on to address those who have voiced opposition to a deal with a party viewed by many as beyond the pale; Kach and Kahane Chai, two previous iterations of movements supporting Kahane, are both banned in Israel and the US as terror organizations, and Kahane was banned from seeking re-election to the Knesset in 1988, having been deemed a racist, after winning a seat four years earlier.
Established in 2012 as Otzma Leyisrael by Ben Ari and Ayreh Eldad, many of the views espoused by the party are akin to those backed by some of the Knesset’s most hardline MKs — annexation of the entire West Bank and unrestricted settlement construction; opposition to a Palestinian state and punitive military operations in response to terror attacks; further emphasis on Israel’s Jewish character in the education, social, and judicial systems.
However, the ultra-nationalist party adds to those positions a host of more overtly racist ones. It supports encouraging emigration of non-Jews from Israel, and expelling Palestinians and Israeli Arabs who refuse to declare loyalty and accept sub-equal status in an expanded Jewish state whose sovereignty extends throughout the West Bank — the biblical Judea and Samaria. It also calls for a termination of the fragile status quo on the Temple Mount.
The Jewish Home leader admitted that he himself had a hard time swallowing the merger idea at first. However, he asserted that the arrangement reached was not a unity deal, but “a technical agreement for a limited period of time, and after the elections we will separate.”
Peretz also revealed that he was in ongoing talks with Netanyahu to bring Eli Yishai into the Jewish Home fold. In the previous elections, the Yachad chairman ran on his own slate and failed to cross the electoral threshold. While it remains to be decided which spot on the already-crowded list will be reserved for Yishai, the central committee reacted positively to the announcement and went on to approve that move as well in principle.
Just a dozen or so members of the internal body voted against the merger with Otzma Yehudit, which passed overwhelmingly in a show of hands.