Yair Lapid, of the newly formed Blue and White alliance seeking to defeat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the upcoming national elections, said Saturday that he finally agreed to join forces with former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz due to last week’s merger deal between the Jewish Home party and the extremist Otzma Yehudit party.
The deal was facilitated by Netanyahu in a bid to strengthen a Likud-led coalition in the April 9 vote, and has since been condemned by numerous Israeli opposition and even right-wing politicians, as well as two mainstream US Jewish organizations.
Asked Saturday evening in an interview with Channel 12’s “Meet the Press” what caused him to agree to finally give up the top spot and his personal leadership aspirations after weeks of unsuccessful merger talks, Lapid said it was the announcement of the far-right alliance.
“I know when it happened. We sat and endlessly discussed matters, and suddenly entering the mix was that Kahanists were entering the Knesset and that Netanyahu promised Smotrich to be our children’s next education minister,” Lapid said, referring to Jewish Home party head Bezalel Smotrich.
“And suddenly, everything else moved aside,” he went on. “I suddenly said, we must prevent this. My biggest argument against Netanyahu in the last two years has been that he puts himself before the country. And I suddenly told myself, aren’t you doing the same thing? Putting yourself before the country? Put the country before yourself, that’s why you went into politics.”
Earlier Saturday, Lapid took to Twitter to blast the prime minister over the Otzma Yehudit deal.
“When even our good friends feel the need to condemn [the merger], then it needs to be clear that a red line has been crossed,” wrote Lapid.
“Netanyahu has caused great harm to Israel’s image in the world and is prepared to endanger our democracy,” he added.
The Jewish Home central committee voted overwhelmingly Wednesday evening to approve a 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.
Following the Wednesday morning decision by the Otzma Yehudit leadership to accept the offer put forth by Jewish Home heads Rafi Peretz and 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 pledged to give two ministerial posts to the Jewish Home party if its members agreed to merge with Otzma Yehudit. A Jewish Home source told The Times of Israel that the education and housing portfolios 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 Jewish Home MK Eli Ben Dahan.
Lapid, chairman of the centrist Yesh Atid party, announced the alliance with Benny Gantz’s Israel Resilience on Thursday, the last day before party slate for the April vote had to be submitted. Lapid is number two on the Blue and White list, with the better-polling Gantz first.
The deal reached between the two says that Israel Resilience and Yesh Atid will act as a single Knesset faction in the upcoming term — leaving the door open to a future split — and that all decision will be made jointly, the Ynet website reported Sunday.
The joint leadership will include Gantz, Lapid and former IDF chiefs Moshe Ya’alon — whose Telem party was the first to join forces with Gantz — and Gabi Ashkenazi, who joined the alliance at the last moment after brokering the merger deal.
The detailed agreement contains 19 articles and specifies the exact order of picks for ministerial position between the factions. Gantz will have the first pick. with Lapid second, Ya’alon third, Ashkenazi fourth, Yesh Atid getting the fifth, seventh and eighth and Israel Resilience getting the sixth, ninth and tenth picks.
The deal says Gantz will first serve as prime minister — if the alliance wins the elections — for two and a half years, until January 2, 2022, when Lapid will take over. Each leader will have a Knesset speaker from his own faction during their term as prime minister.
Netanyahu brokered the agreement between Jewish Home and Otzma Yehudit warning that if the Blue and White alliance came to power, Israel’s very existence would quickly be threatened by the independent Palestinian state he claimed they plan to establish.
Speaking on Thursday minutes after Gantz and Lapid held their first public gathering since merging their respective parties, Netanyahu declared that the choice for the electorate was now “clearer than ever.”
Either Israel could be led by a “weak, new left-wing party,” supported by Arab Knesset members who he said seek to destroy Israel, or the electorate could choose “a strong, right-wing government under my leadership.”
But Netanyahu’s involvement in the controversial Otzma Yehudit-Jewish Home merger may cost him.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the American Jewish Committee (AJC) made separate rare statements last week on the merger deal between Jewish Home and Otzma Yehudit, which could see the entrance of at least one lawmaker from the party of Meir Kahane’s disciples into the 21st Knesset after the April elections.
Labor MK Shelly Yachimovich, head of the opposition, also criticized Netanyahu, saying at a cultural event in Raanana on Saturday that “history will remember the moment a prime minister of Israel, whose citizens include many Holocaust survivors or children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, gives legitimacy… to a Kahanist, racist party… whose leaders symbolize extremism and racism.”
Labor leader Avi Gabbay wrote on Twitter Saturday that his party would do “everything possible to prevent this racist party from serving in the next government.”
Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman said the US Jewish groups’ criticism represented a “real crisis.”
Related op-ed by ToI editor David Horovitz: Netanyahu’s despicable push to bring racists into Israel’s political mainstream
Otzma Yehudit is the spiritual godchild of Rabbi Meir Kahane’s Kach party, which was banned from the Knesset under a Basic Law outlawing incitement to violence and later exiled entirely in Israel. Kahane was the American immigrant founder of the militant Jewish Defense League, who before his assassination in 1990 promoted the immediate annexation of disputed territories and the expulsion of Arabs from the West Bank.
Party head Ben Ari has called Kahane his rabbi and his teacher. Other leaders include former Kahane aide Marzel, a resident of Hebron who holds a party every year at the grave of Baruch Goldstein, the American-born doctor who in 1994 massacred 29 Palestinians at the Tomb of the Patriarchs; Gopstein, a rabbi who runs Lehava, a group that opposes marriages between Jews and non-Jews; and Ben Gvir, an attorney who defends right-wing activists accused of Jewish terrorism.
Established in 2012 as Otzma Leyisrael by Ben Ari and Aryeh 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; and 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, which Israel has maintained since capturing an annexing the area in the 1967 war, under which Muslims can pray at the disputed holy site and Jews cannot.