Merger talks between right-wing Jewish Home and National Union fall apart

NU head Bezalel Smotrich says Jewish Home leader Rafi Peretz walked back on agreement, leaving both factions unlikely to cross Knesset threshold

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent

(L) Jewish Home chairman Rabbi Rafi Peretz speaks at the party's convention in Ramat Gan on February 4, 2019. (R) Bezalel Smotrich celebrates after being elected chairman of the National Union faction, at the Crown Plaza hotel in Jerusalem, on January 14, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/FLash90)
(L) Jewish Home chairman Rabbi Rafi Peretz speaks at the party's convention in Ramat Gan on February 4, 2019. (R) Bezalel Smotrich celebrates after being elected chairman of the National Union faction, at the Crown Plaza hotel in Jerusalem, on January 14, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/FLash90)

Unity talks between the Jewish Home and the National Union hit a “dead-end” Saturday evening, according to officials from both of the national religious factions.

A source with direct knowledge of the negotiations confirmed to The Times of Israel that a meeting between National Union chairman Bezalel Smotrich and his Jewish Home counterpart Rafi Peretz ended abruptly after just five minutes due to disagreements between the two.

The split will likely imperil the Knesset hopes of both factions. Recent polls have shown a joint Jewish Home-National Union ticket hovering just above the electoral threshold of 3.25 percent of the national vote. However, surveys show two independent runs would see both parties fail to garner enough support to enter the Knesset unless they find other factions to join up with.

The two parties have run together in the past, but the Jewish Home was seen as the senior partner, receiving both the position of chairman as well as more spots on the Knesset list and more ministerial posts in the government. Smotrich had reportedly sought to renegotiate that arrangement.

The Jewish Home released a statement following the meeting saying negotiations had reached an impasse, but that it was preparing for an independent Knesset run while also “examining other possibilities.”

Smotrich published his own statement with a more detailed account of what had gone on behind closed doors.

Head of the Jewish Home party Rabbi Rafi Peretz arrives to the party’s preliminary elections in Ramat Gan on February 4, 2019. (Flash90)

The hardline lawmaker, who defeated MK Uri Ariel in the National Union leadership elections last month, said that he and Peretz had held a productive and cordial meeting last Thursday, during which the sides had agreed to form an equal partnership. Peretz, who was elected chairman last week, would be given the number one spot while Smotrich would be given the first choice regarding ministerial positions. The third and fifth spots on the list would go to Jewish Home while fourth and sixth would go to National Union.

However, Smotrich said that Peretz had called him Saturday evening, letting him know that after consulting with his advisers, he had concluded that the Jewish Home would not agree to an equal partnership with the National Union. Instead, he was demanding the number one spot on the joint list, preference in governmental appointments and a majority of lawmakers on the slate.

Smotrich said Peretz wanted “to return to the starting point in which the Jewish home is the senior partner and we are the guest in their home.”

In addition to his apparent hesitancy to a merger with the National Union, Peretz has also reportedly pushed back on a possible union with the far-right Otzma Yehudit party, despite calls from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the three parties to merge to increase their chances of entering the Knesset.

A former Jewish Home lawmaker who spoke to The Times of Israel said Peretz was “concerned about scaring away [supporters] who would never be able to vote for Itamar Ben Gvir and Benzi Gopstein,” he said, referring to the far-right activists on the Otzma Yehudit slate, who proudly endorse the ideology of Meir Kahane.

The far-right activist rabbi’s Kach party was banned in Israel under anti-terrorism laws in the 1980s.

The Jewish Home has seen its popularity plummet since its former leaders, Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked bolted the party in December. Explaining their decision at the time, the ministers said that they had been shackled by the national religious leadership, who Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu felt were “in his pocket.”

The New Right is seen easily entering the Knesset with 6-7 seats, but polling shows Netanyahu will likely also need four seats from Jewish Home-National Union to form a coalition should he be tasked with building a government after the April 9 vote.

In its internal elections last month, National Union CEO Ofir Sofer earned the party’s second spot followed by ex-MK Orit Strock and former Ashkelon council member Yossi Cohen.

In last week’s Jewish Home primaries, Moti Yogev unseated deputy defense minister Eli Ben Dahan from the number 2 spot. The third slot is reserved for a female candidate.

Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.

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