Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party is pushing right-wing parties to merge with an extremist faction in a bid to shore up support for his conservative bloc, in a repeat of a move that has drawn vociferous criticism against the premier in the past.
For the third election in a row, Likud is urging religious-Zionist parties to ensure that the Kahanist-inspired Otzma Yehudit party is part of their slate for the March 2 race, fearing that votes could be lost to parties that fail to clear the electoral threshold otherwise.
“The left has united — they’re not going to lose any votes. Now the right must do everything to prevent wasting votes,” Likud said Tuesday in a statement.
The statement was directed at New Right, just hours after the right-wing party led by Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked announced it would run together with the National Union faction.
New Right is on the liberal end of the religious right, and argued as late as Monday that if it runs as a separate party, it could attract voters from the center and from secularist Yisrael Beytenu to the right.
But earlier Tuesday, coalition talks between the far-right Jewish Home and National Union factions fell apart, and within hours New Right had inked an alliance agreement with the latter.
New Right has invited Jewish Home to join their alliance, though Bennett has reportedly insisted that the party jettison a previous agreement to run with Otzma Yehudit, drawing angry criticism from Likud.
According to Channel 12 news, Netanyahu threatened to fire Bennett as defense minister if he does not agree to run with Otzma Yehudit.
Jewish Home’s Rafi Peretz told both Bennett and Netanyahu on Tuesday he would not back out of his agreement with Otzma Yehudit in order to join forces with the New Right-National Union alliance, the channel reported.
The Likud statement was blunt: “Unfortunately, Bennett wasted votes in the April elections [when New Right ran separately and failed to make it into the Knesset], and in the last election pushed Otzma out of his party. That’s why we were unable to establish a right-wing government,” the party accused.
It urged Bennett to overcome his ideological distaste for the Otzma Yehudit slate, several of whose candidates have been disqualified from running for election for overtly racist views and activism.
“Just as [Gesher party leader] Orly Levy now finds herself in the same party as Tamar Zandberg of Meretz, and just as the [Arab-majority] Joint List brings together communists and Islamists on one list, so, too, it is Bennett’s responsibility to forge a technical bloc that will salvage every last vote on the right,” the statement said.
“Bennett, show some responsibility!”
Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, who also serves as Likud’s top coalition negotiator, accused the right-wing factions of too much “ego” in failing to unify.
“Such a small public with such a large ego. Shameful,” he said in an interview with Army Radio Tuesday.
All sides insist the fight is over substance. Bennett has argued a more liberal and open-minded religious right can attract new voters, while Jewish Home’s Peretz has depicted himself as working to preserve the character and identity of the party that has represented religious Zionism for decades.
But both have also called for unity, each proposing a similar broad right-wing union — and each insisting their faction must lead it.
In its own follow-up statement, New Right seemed to ignore Likud’s remonstrations. According to Channel 13 news, Bennett has told Netanyahu that he should bring in Otzma Yehudit to Likud rather than trying to merge the extremists with his faction.
“Naftali Bennett, Ayelet Shaked and [National Union leader] Betzalel Smotrich have invested tremendous efforts over the past day to forge a single strong slate that will faithfully represent religious Zionist and the ideological right,” new Right said in a statement.
The statement echoed the call for unity on the right, but pointedly left out Otzma Yehudit.
“We have called, and we continue to call, on Jewish Home and [its leader] Rabbi Rafi Peretz to enter with us into a single victorious party. We can’t waste a single vote!”
The three parties ran together as Yamina in September elections, leaving out Otzma Yehudit, reportedly at Bennett’s insistence.
In April, New Right ran alone and failed to enter the Knesset, while Otzma Yehudit joined with Jewish Home and National Union and won several seats.
The prime minister was angrily criticized for engineering the merger with Otzma Yehudit at the time, drawing even rare protest from pro-Israel lobby AIPAC and others.
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.
The party supports encouraging emigration of non-Jews from Israel, and expelling Palestinians and Israeli Arabs who refuse to declare loyalty to Israel and accept diminished status in an expanded Jewish state whose sovereignty extends throughout the West Bank.
The New Right alliance with National Union has also raised some eyebrows. Smotrich last year spoke out in favor of an Israel governed by religious law and said that liberal values infringe on the rights of religious Israelis. He and Peretz have also made homophobic statements.
It also came a day after New Right pledged to go it alone in the March 2 elections.
National Union called on Peretz to team up with them and said “the door remained open” to his party.
“We took a significant and big step this morning and with the help of God we’ll complete a full union with Jewish Home in the coming hours,” National Union leader Smotrich said in a joint statement from the parties.
New Right leaders Bennett and Shaked also called for Jewish Home to join them.
The United Jewish Home — the name of the alliance of Jewish Home and far-right Otzma Yehudit — reacted angrily to the New Right-National Union union.
“The true face of Bezalel Smotrich and Naftali Bennett has been exposed — the shattering of religious Zionism,” the party said in a statement.
It accused New Right and National Union of having “hurt the entire right-wing camp,” and singled out Smotrich for criticism.
Smotrich explained on Tuesday morning that the union with Jewish Home had fallen through because the party had refused his demand to fully merge the parties and hold a new leadership race for its head.
But “suddenly open primaries, democratic competition or merging parties don’t interest Bezalel, only the warm seat in the New Right,” the United Jewish Home statement accused.
The party said it would soon announce its next moves. Parties have until midnight Wednesday to finalize their electoral slates.
In a separate statement, Otzma Yehudit claimed Smotrich torpedoed his party’s talks with Jewish Home over the latter’s refusal to guarantee the fourth spot on the joint list to one of his National Union MKs, offering instead the fifth slot.
The Bennett-Smotrich deal places Peretz in a considerable dilemma, as staying with the far-right party risks stranding Jewish Home below the electoral threshold, while deserting Otzma Yehudit could damage Peretz’s credibility.
Bennett vowed Monday he would run independently in the upcoming election and met with Zehut chairman Moshe Feiglin late Monday night in an effort to convince him to join the New Right.
Feiglin turned down the offer, leading Bennett to reconsider the possibility of merging with Smotrich, an official with knowledge of the negotiations told The Times of Israel.
Zehut, which combines far-right nationalism and small-government libertarianism, ran in elections last April but failed to clear the minimum electoral threshold.