Former defense minister Avigdor Liberman on Monday issued harsh criticism of a right-wing extremist party poised to enter the Knesset, branding its members “delusional” and saying he would not greet them if they enter the Knesset.
Otzma Yehudit was included in a merger of national-religious parties last week brokered by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who warned right-wing votes would be “wasted” if the factions ran alone and failed to clear the minimum electoral threshold in April’s elections.
Liberman noted that Otzma Yehudit leaders Michael Ben Ari and Baruch Marzel had led protests against the opening of businesses on Shabbat in Ashdod — a struggle he was personally involved with — and said his secular Yisrael Beytenu party would push back against “religious coercion.”
“As far as I am concerned, they’re nonexistent and if I meet them in the Knesset I won’t greet them. They are delusional and nothing more than that,” he said.
Liberman dismissed the possibility that any Otzma Yehudit members would be included in the next government if they are elected, but lashed Netanyahu for facilitating the merger, accusing his party of straying from its roots.
“Likud is going against the revisionist founding fathers. Likud has become half ultra-Orthodox,” he said.
Netanyahu’s push for Otzma Yehudit to be a partner in the so-called Union of Right-Wing Parties has been widely condemned by Israeli opposition figures and US Jewish groups, with the pro-Israel AIPAC lobby issuing a rare rebuke in which it called the party “racist and reprehensible.”
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.
Liberman on Saturday stressed the significance of AIPAC’s condemnation, saying it marked a “real crisis.”
In his remarks Monday, Liberman noticeably did not criticize Otzma Yehudit over some of its members’ call to expel Arab citizens of Israel deemed “disloyal to the state.” Liberman in past election campaigns has called for conditioning Israeli citizenship on a loyalty test.
Otzma Yehudit member Baruch Marzel later hit back at Liberman, criticizing his tenure as defense minister and saying the attack on his party was intended only to get press coverage.
“Liberman understands that media attention towards him has hit rock bottom, so he spouted nonsense that gets him into headlines. This despite him knowing full well that he is not scraping the underside of the electoral threshold,” Marzel said in a statement quoted by the Israel National News site.
Marzel, who served as Kahane’s secretary in the Knesset, also defended demonstrating for the closure of minimarkets during Shabbat, calling Liberman a “hater of Judaism.”
“Liberman would do well to internalize that Israel is not Soviet Russia but a Jewish state,” he said.
Many of Yisrael Beytenu’s supporters are immigrants from the former Soviet Union, as is Liberman himself.