Left in the lurch by the religious right, Otzma Yehudit party set to go it alone

Left in the lurch by the religious right, Otzma Yehudit party set to go it alone

Ultranationalist slate led by activist-attorney Itamar Ben Gvir also includes mother of terror victim, ex-staffer for disqualified lawmaker and secular farmer from Golan Heights

Jacob Magid is the settlements correspondent for The Times of Israel.

Otzma Yehudit candidates (From L-R) Tiran Zeituni, Meir Ben Hayun, Adva Biton, chairman Itamar Ben Gvir, Itshak Waserlauf and Yehuda Epstein pose for a photo after the party announces its slate from January 5, 2019. (Courtesy)
Otzma Yehudit candidates (From L-R) Tiran Zeituni, Meir Ben Hayun, Adva Biton, chairman Itamar Ben Gvir, Itshak Waserlauf and Yehuda Epstein pose for a photo after the party announces its slate from January 5, 2019. (Courtesy)

After Jewish Home chairman Rafi Peretz reneged on a merger agreement with Otzma Yehudit and instead joined New Right in the Yamina alliance, the far-right party is expected to announce later this week whether it will move forward with an independent run in the upcoming March election.

Otzma Yehudit, composed of self-described disciples of the late extremist rabbi Meir Kahane, filed its slate of candidates moments before the Wednesday night filing deadline, but has since come under pressure from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other right-wing leaders to bow out rather than risk falling short of the electoral threshold and wasting tens of thousands of right-wing votes.

The party’s central committee was set to convene on Sunday evening to discuss how to best move forward and a final decision will be announced in the coming days. Otzma Yehudit chairman Itamar Ben Gvir told The Times of Israel that he believes his slate will remain in the race until the end.

In the previous election, in September, the faction received 83,600 votes, nearly 50,000 shy of the 3.25% of the national vote required to make it into the Knesset.

Itamar Ben Gvir, head of the Otzma Yehudit party presents his party list to the Central Elections committee at the Knesset in Jerusalem, January 15, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

This time around, the party is hoping to enlist additional votes from right-wingers turned off by the conduct over the past week of senior Yamina officials who deserted Ben Gvir at the last possible moment.

Peretz for weeks had vowed to uphold the agreement he signed with the far-right party in December. But the Jewish Home leader eventually buckled under pressure from Netanyahu and other national religious officials who deemed it unlikely that the Peretz-Ben Gvir slate would be able to coexist with Naftali Bennett’s New Right, which merged with Bezalel Smotrich’s National Union a day before the filing deadline.

To add insult to injury for Ben Gvir, Bennett, in asserting that he would only merge with Jewish Home, specifically cited a photograph of 1994 Hebron massacre perpetrator Baruch Goldstein that Ben Gvir hangs in his living room. The Otzma Yehudit chairman offered to take down the photo, but Bennett said that it would not be enough.

It bears mention that the Yamina chairman agreed to run on a joint slate with the far-right party in the previous election, but merger talks broke down when Ben Gvir demanded a higher placement on the slate than the eighth spot that was offered to him.

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

In April, the party ran with Jewish Home and National Union — but without Bennett and his partner Ayelet Shaked — in an alliance known as the Union of Right-Wing Parties. The merger, which normalized the long-marginalized slate of Kahane disciples, came into fruition thanks to Netanyahu, who promised Peretz and Smotrich cabinet posts in addition to reserving a spot on the Likud slate for a Jewish Home candidate. In the end, URWP only managed to scrape together five seats in the Knesset, leaving Ben Gvir, who was posted at six, outside of the Knesset.

While the party is highly unlikely to make into the Knesset in light of their September failure, one of the three TV polls released on Thursday predicted that Otzma Yehudit could indeed cross the electoral threshold.

Who’s Who

Ben Gvir, an activist attorney from Hebron, took the helm after the party’s former chairman Michael Ben Ari was barred by the Supreme Court ahead of the April election for inciting racism. The top legal body went on to disqualify Kahane’s former adviser Baruch Marzel and anti-miscegenation activist Bentzi Gopstein, who had been added to Otzma Yehudit’s slate ahead of the September vote.

Ben Gvir has long been an outspoken member of the far-right. Indicted 53 times since his youth, he boasts of having been cleared in 46 cases. He decided to study law on the recommendation of judges so he could defend himself.

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)

He also defends settlers and other far-right Israelis accused of violence against Palestinians, including those allegedly responsible for an arson attack that killed an 18-month-old Palestinian boy and his parents in 2015 in the West Bank, an incident that drew widespread revulsion.

In 1995, when only 19 and in a time of turmoil following the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians, he appeared on television with what he said was the stolen emblem from prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s Cadillac.

Itshak Waserlauf. (Courtesy)

Explaining his initial decision to merge with Ben Gvir earlier this month, Peretz said the Otzma Yehudit chairman had “moderated” in recent years.

If the far-right party makes it into the Knesset, Ben Gvir will be joined by Itshak Waserlauf, Adva Biton and Yitzhak Kroyzer, in the order that they appear on the slate of candidates.

Adva Biton speaks at an Otzma Yehudit campaign event in Bat-Yam on August 29, 2019. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

Waserlauf, 27, serves as the party’s director-general and previously served as the chairman of the youth branch of the National Union party. When Ben Ari left that hardline national religious slate to form the more extremist Otzma Yehudit in 2012, Waserlauf joined him and began working for him.

Yitzhak Kroyzer. (Courtesy)

At No. 3 on Ben Gvir’s list is Adva Biton, whose daughter Adele was severely injured in a 2013 West Bank terror attack and succumbed to her injuries several years later. The 39-year-old social activist is a resident of the Yakir settlement in the northern West Bank.

The lone secular candidate at the top of Otzma Yehudit’s slate is Yitzhak Kroyzer at No. 4. The 34-year-old father of three is a resident of the farming village Natur in the Golan Heights.

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