Jewish Home chief under fire from within his party for merger with Otzma Yehudit

Senior lawmaker, dozens of party officials say Rafi Peretz acted alone in agreement with extremist faction; demand central committee convene to vote on matter

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

Education Minister Rafi Peretz, speaks to supporters during an election campaign event in Ramat Gan, on August 12, 2019. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)
Education Minister Rafi Peretz, speaks to supporters during an election campaign event in Ramat Gan, on August 12, 2019. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

A senior Jewish Home lawmaker and dozens of other party officials spoke out in anger Saturday evening over their chairman Rafi Peretz’s decision to strike a merger agreement with the far-right Otzma Yehudit group a day earlier.

Over 80 Jewish Home officials, including mayors and branch heads across the country, sent an open letter to Peretz lambasting him for acting alone in making the agreement.

MK Moti Yogev, the party’s No. 2, tweeted that the deal had been struck without his knowledge, while he was working to reach a similar agreement with Bezalel Smotrich’s National Union, another national religious faction that has run alongside Jewish Home in all recent elections.

Yogev called on Peretz to convene the party’s central committee over the agreement with Otzma Yehudit as well as additional potential mergers.

“We are a Zionist, religious and democratic party,” he stressed.

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

In their letter to Peretz, party officials lamented his failure to converse with Jewish Home members to achieve “better and more natural” mergers. They warned the union with Otzma Yehudit would prevent other alliances.

Otzma Yehudit supports evicting Palestinians from the West Bank who don’t accept Israeli rule from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River.

The letter’s authors warned that if Peretz did not convene the central committee, they would seek to do so themselves “and announce democratic elections to bring back public legitimacy and trust.

״There is no reason to drag a grand party into the political abyss and prevent the ability to unite all religious Zionist factions just because of your fear of having to compete for your spot,” the party officials wrote.

Peretz last week came out against the idea of open primaries for a united national religious faction, expressing concern that the resulting party wouldn’t properly represent the camp, partially due to the New Right’s refusal to participate in them.

Jewish Home, National Union and New Right all ran together in the September election under the Yamina alliance.

Polling has indicated that Peretz has the most to lose in an election scenario, with other national religious politicians, including Smotrich and Otzma Yehudit chairman Itamar Ben Gvir, being far more popular than he is.

Ben Gvir stood by his merger with the Jewish Home in a Channel 12 interview on Saturday evening, saying the move would ensure that the Netanyahu-led right-wing bloc would receive 61 seats and be able to form a government without Blue and White or Yisrael Beytenu.

(From L-R) URWP MK Idit Silman, Rafi Peretz, Bezalel Smotrich and Moti Yogev during a visit in south Tel Aviv on March 25, 2019. (Avi Dishi/Flash90)

For his part, Peretz called on Saturday evening for the New Right and National Union to join the Jewish Home-Otzma Yehudit alliance.

Introducing the deal in a joint statement on Friday, the parties said, “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.”

The deal is seen as a blow to 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 experienced Peretz will remain at the helm.

Bezalel Smotrich addresses a National Union faction event on October 6, 2019. (National Union)

Otzma Yehudit’s leadership is made up of disciples of the American-born Rabbi Meir Kahane, whose Jewish supremacist Kach party was banned under Israeli law for incitement to racism and later declared a terrorist group.

Jewish Home and Otzma Yehudit ran together in the April elections — Israel’s first national vote this year — as part of the Union of Right-Wing Parties which also included the National Union. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself orchestrated this union in a bid to ensure they crossed the election threshold. The alliance ultimately won five seats in the Knesset. New Right, which ran alone, did not garner enough votes.

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 latter was not honoring its pre-election agreement.

As part of the new union, 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.

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