Likud lawmaker Miki Zohar insisted on Monday that offering a major role in government to an extremist politician to convince him to drop out of the election campaign would be a “welcome step” that could help ensure Likud’s election victory.
“The welcome step would be for [Itamar] Ben Gvir not to run for Knesset, that he find a party he thinks he can convince his friends to back, and that that party includes him in its work [in government],” Zohar told the Kan public broadcaster on Monday.
The comments come after a report Sunday on Channel 12 that Likud was in negotiations with Ben Gvir, of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party, over the possibility that he would be appointed to a cabinet position in exchange for dropping out of the March 2 race.
The ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party was reportedly the faction that had offered Ben Gvir one of its cabinet posts in the next coalition in order to convince him to abandon his run.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has publicly warned that Ben Gvir was unlikely to win the 3.25% of votes required to enter the Knesset, and could end up “wasting” right-wing votes in a close-fought and unprecedented third election in 11 months.
Likud’s Zohar has long been viewed as a trial-balloon foil for Netanyahu, and his latest comments were interpreted in that vein. He led a public campaign to grant Netanyahu parliamentary immunity from a corruption indictment over the past year, even when Netanyahu himself publicly insisted he would not seek immunity and claimed to oppose the effort. Likud officials have quietly acknowledged since then that Zohar’s activities were coordinated with the prime minister.
Asked on Monday if his comments similarly reflected Netanyahu’s unstated wishes, Zohar insisted this time was different.
Whether Ben Gvir would hold a cabinet post “should be left to the [coalition] negotiations,” he said, adding that “the prime minister isn’t involved in this issue. The prime minister isn’t involved in everything I do. I’ll bring him the full picture, and if he decides not to, then it won’t happen.”
Netanyahu’s spokespeople released a short statement Monday after Zohar’s interview indicating that a decision had already been made.
“The initiative to appoint Ben Gvir [to the cabinet] is not being advanced by the prime minister and won’t be implemented,” the statement said.
Observers noted that a similar statement from Netanyahu’s office last year insisted he was not considering and would not seek parliamentary immunity. He later reversed course.
Zohar’s comments also reflected the pressure being brought to bear on Ben Gvir from the right over fears his run could cost Likud a decisive right-wing majority after the March 2 election.
“I want to get to a situation where he won’t run, because if he runs we won’t have a majority,” Zohar told Kan public radio on Monday.
Ben Gvir, for his part, seemed to play hard to get on Monday, though he didn’t rule out the idea of dropping out.
“This doesn’t excite me,” he told Kan. “A [cabinet] post is important, but it’s not my priority. Our values are more important. I love and appreciate the Haredi parties very much, but we represent much more than they do; we’re meant for all of Israel.”
He said Otzma Yehudit’s decision-making secretariat would convene in the coming days to decide whether to consider a Likud offer for dropping out of the race.
Otzma Yehudit, composed of self-described disciples of the late extremist rabbi Meir Kahane, was left to run on its own after three other parties to the right of Likud combined into the Yamina alliance but slammed the door on Ben Gvir’s faction joining them.
Yamina leader Naftali Bennett nixed Otzma Yehudit’s joining the alliance, declaring he could not join forces with a man who hung a photograph of 1994 Hebron massacre perpetrator Baruch Goldstein in his living room, as Ben Gvir famously did.
Netanyahu has drawn vociferous criticism in recent months for repeatedly working to ensure that Otzma Yehudit either enters the Knesset or drops out of the race, including engineering a union of the extremist faction with right-wing Jewish Home-National Union in a previous election.
Giving Ben Gvir a ministerial post would likely invite an even larger outcry at home and abroad.
Sunday’s report drew another wave of backlash, with the opposing Blue and White party using it as a rallying cry in their bid to remove Netanyahu from office.
Blue and White leader MK Benny Gantz tweeted, “There are no depths to which Netanyahu will not sink for the sake of immunity,” a reference to three criminal cases against the prime minister for which he is seeking parliamentary immunity, which would only be granted if it has the backing of a majority of lawmakers.
MK Yair Lapid, Blue and White’s no. 2, tweeted, “You voted Bibi and you got Kahane.”
Channel 12 reported that Netanyahu has also in the past asked Shas to merge with Otzma Yehudit, but party chairman Interior Minister Aryeh Deri refused.
Before elections in September, which failed to produce a government, the premier promised Moshe Feiglin a ministerial portfolio for pulling his Zehut party out of the race.
Netanyahu also reportedly unsuccessfully pushed for Otzma Yehudit to drop out of the September elections. In that vote 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.
A political deadlock has seen two elections fail to produce a majority government, sending Israel back to another vote on March 2.
Parties on both the left and right of the political field have been merging to prevent votes for either camp from being lost on runners who fail to beat the 3.25% electoral threshold.