Jewish Home No. 2 quits in anger as last-second merger roils political landscape

After being placed 11th on unified list, Moti Yogev says Rafi Peretz not fit to lead party; Jewish Home head apologizes to Itamar Ben Gvir; Bennett comes under fire from both sides

Rafi Peretz, left, and MK Moti Yogev attend a meeting of the Jewish Home party in Tel Aviv on Jan 13, 2020. (Gili Yaari / Flash90)
Rafi Peretz, left, and MK Moti Yogev attend a meeting of the Jewish Home party in Tel Aviv on Jan 13, 2020. (Gili Yaari / Flash90)

Jewish Home leader Rafi Peretz took heat from erstwhile allies after an 11th-hour decision to drop an alliance with an extremist faction and throw his lot in with more mainstream right-wing parties, with his top deputy quitting in anger.

A reticent Peretz defended his decision to cast aside Itamar Ben Gvir’s Kahanist Otzma Yehudit faction and join the New Right and National Union instead, calling it one of the hardest decisions he had ever had to make, but one necessary to “save” the national religious camp. New Right leader Naftali Bennett had refused to allow Otzma Yehudit into the alliance.

“True, this is how politics is played, but I need to be true first and foremost to myself and so request the forgiveness of my friend Itamar Ben Gvir that I was forced to painfully cancel my pact with him,” he said after midnight Thursday.

Moments earlier, MK Moti Yogev, who had been the No. 2 figure on the Jewish Home slate, angrily announced that he was quitting the party after he was shunted to the 11th spot on the unified list.

“Peretz’s word is not his word,” he said in a hastily arranged Knesset press conference as final party slates were registered. “Peretz is not fit to be a public representative..,. Jewish Home under Rafi Peretz has lost his way.”

Yogev, a Jewish Home stalwart who finished first in the party’s internal primary but had been moved down in favor of bringing in political freshman Peretz, had been a vocal critic of the party leader for engineering the pact with Otzma Yehudit without first solidifying its traditional alliance with National Union.

The unified party is seen as having little chance of getting enough votes for a double-digit number of seats, meaning Yogev’s 11th spot on the slate effectively placed him out of the Knesset barring any dramatic shifts when Israelis go to the polls on March 2.

National Union head Bezalel Smotrich said he was “pained” by Yogev’s decision and was “very saddened by the situation that was created.”

Otzma Yehudit chairman Itamar Ben Gvir at the entrance to the Central Elections Committee in the Knesset, January 15, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Peretz, the education minister, in recent days had vowed not to break the agreement he reached last month with Otzma Yehudit, but came under immense pressure from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party as well as other right-wing officials who were worried the Jewish Home-Otzma Yehudit slate would not cross the electoral threshold.

Some also feared that having two national religious parties running against each other could cause both to fall below the 3.25 percent threshold necessary to enter the Knesset.

Jewish Home spiritual leader Rabbi Chaim Druckman, who played a part in last minute talks that led to Peretz dropping Otzma Yehudit, said the move was necessitated by the low chance Jewish Home had of crossing the threshold if only allied with the extremist faction.

He told the national religious Kipa website that the decision was akin to a Jewish law which allows one man to die of thirst if there are two people who need water but only enough to save one of them.

“Is it better that both of them should die? It’s the same thing here,” he said.

Speaking to reporters after filing his party’s slate, Ben Gvir lashed out at Peretz, calling him a “traitor” for breaking his agreement.

“The so-called education minister stabbed me in the back,” he said before vowing to press on with an independent run for Knesset. “A right-wing victory in these elections will depend on Otzma Yehudit succeeding.”

Michael Ben-Ari, a former MK who had been banned by the Central Elections Committee from running on Otzma’s slate for his racist views, bashed Peretz, whom he said had stuck in a knife in the party’s back.

“Peretz will be remembered in the annals of Israeli political history as one of the most despicable people ever,” he told Army Radio late Wednesday.

Jewish Home’s last-minute merger with the New Right and National Union, to be called Yamina, returned the three national religious parties in a formula nearly identical to the one that won seven seats in September’s vote under the same name. Then, the alliance was led by Bennett’s New Right partner Ayelet Shaked. This time the merger will be led by Bennett, followed by Peretz, Shaked and Smotrich.

Defense Minister Naftali Bennett addressing a conference celebrating US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s declaration about the legality of West Bank settlements in Jerusalem, December 8, 2019 (courtesy Kohelet Policy Forum)

Netanyahu praised Peretz, saying he “showed leadership and did the right thing.”

However, others attacked the alliance, which places the slightly more liberal New Right alongside ultra-conservative Jewish Home and National Union, both of which are led by figures who have come under fire for homophobic comments.

Bennett had balked at bringing in Otzma because of its Kahanist ideology, but some see both Jewish Home and National Union as ideologically similar to the extremist faction. Jewish Home officials had defended Otzma Yehudit in recent weeks, saying the differences between the two parties were more about style than substance. Bezalel Smotrich, who leads National Union, is known for his far-right views on matters of religion and state, expressing support for governing by Torah law in addition to a host of other statements against the LGBT community.

“Racism, homophobia and exclusion are not Jewish values. The right should not offer a guarantee of personal immunity to the defendant in bribery,” said Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, referring also to the parties’ support of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu despite the three corruption cases against him.

Party No. 2 Yair Lapid appealed the national religious community to vote for his faction instead of a party “which had aligned itself with messianists and homophobes, despite all its promises.”

Likud MK Shlomo Karhi blasted Bennett for having refused to ally with Otzma Yehudit, which will instead run on its own, potentially leaving one or two Knesset seats on the table.

“It’s hard to find the words to describe the lack of responsibility… with which Bennett is leading religious Zionism,” he tweeted. “You can’t rely on someone who refuses to learn from the mistakes of the past.”

In September, an independent Otzma Yehudit run netted the party some 80,000 votes, enough for two seats, but well below the threshold for entering the Knesset.

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