Moments before closing deal, talks between national religious parties blow up

Smotrich’s National Union party says Jewish Home walked back deal to dissolve respective central committees, form new body; Jewish Home says that’s not true

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Union of Right-Wing Parties chairman Rafi Peretz (R) and National Union faction chair Bezalel Smotrich at the party's 2019 election campaign launch, March 11, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Union of Right-Wing Parties chairman Rafi Peretz (R) and National Union faction chair Bezalel Smotrich at the party's 2019 election campaign launch, March 11, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

National Union chairman Bezalel Smotrich instructed his negotiators to walk out of merger talks with fellow national religious faction Jewish Home just as the sides were on the verge of signing an agreement late Monday evening.

According to a statement from Smotrich’s party, the merger agreement was supposed to include a clause in which the sides would agree to the dissolving of their respective central committees and the formation of a single internal body that would make future decisions for the party. In the past several elections, the two parties had run together on the same list, but remained separate entities.

The National Union claimed that as its negotiators were preparing to sign the final agreement with their Jewish Home counterparts at the home of prominent national religious rabbi Chaim Druckman, the latter party asked that the clause regarding a fused central committee be renegotiated.

Responding to the lengthy National Union statement explaining the decision to freeze the negotiations, Jewish Home claimed, “in order to tell the truth, you don’t need thousands of words,” adding that it had made no such walk-backs and that it was still prepared to close a deal immediately.

Jewish Home central committee members vote to approve a merger with the far-right Otzma Yehudit party on January 13, 2020 (Flash90)

In the meantime, Smotrich has once again begun re-entertaining the idea of merging his party with Naftali Bennett’s New Right instead, according to an official with knowledge of the talks.

Bennett announced Monday that his slate would be running independently in the upcoming election, certain that a more moderate national religious faction running alongside a hardline joint party of Jewish Home, National Union and Otzma Yehudit would bring in more seats than if the four parties ran together, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has demanded.

“The odds of Bennett agreeing to take Smotrich in are slim and it is likely that Bezalel [Smotrich] will return to the Jewish Home, but in the meantime, talks are frozen,” the official told The Times of Israel.

The sides have until a midnight Wednesday deadline to finalize their party lists.

In the elections last April, Bennett’s New Right party, which he founded with Ayelet Shaked after bolting Jewish Home, failed to cross the electoral threshold. In the subsequent September parliamentary race, New Right agreed to merge with his old party, creating the Yamina alliance led by Ayelet Shaked, which went on to win seven seats.

(L-R) Ayelet Shaked, Naftali Bennett, Bezalel Smotrich and Rafi Peretz announcing a merger between religious right-wing parties, to be called United Right, July 29, 2019. (Courtesy)

However, since that election, Bennett was named defense minister and enjoyed a boost in most public opinion surveys as a result. The rejuvenated lawmaker subsequently has concluded that he and Shaked are strong enough to risk another independent run in the March 2 national vote.

Smotrich had campaigned for the holding of an open primary for a united national religious slate in which polls indicated that the National Union leader and transportation minister would fare better than any of the other national religious parties’ leaders.

However, the less-popular, scandal prone Peretz rejected the idea, recognizing he likely would lose his spot at the top of the list. Instead, he shocked much of the political world by inking an agreement with the far-right Otzma Yehudit that left room for Smotrich and his party but only in the two and five spots.

The offer has since been slightly improved to offer the two and four spots, with the proposed list being as follows:
1. Rafi Peretz (Jewish Home)
2. Bezalel Smotrich (National Union)
3. Itamar Ben Gvir (Otzma Yehudit)
4. Ofir Sofer (National Union)
5. Moti Yogev (Jewish Home)
6. Idit Silman (Jewish Home)
7. Itshak Waserlauf (Otzma Yehudit)

While the proposal would give Silman the sixth spot in order to better ensure the entry of a female candidate onto the list, she would serve in a rotational capacity in order to allow the participation of a second Otzma Yehudit candidate.

The Jewish Home central committee convened Monday night to sign off on the party’s merger with the slate of self-described disciples of the late, extremist rabbi Meir Kahane in addition to granting Peretz authority to complete the remainder of talks ahead of the deadline as he sees fit.

Both motions passed the internal body but the latter caused a great deal of controversy that led to a physical confrontation and shouting match between supporters of Yogev and Peretz. The former has expressed frustration over the chairman’s backdoor deal with Otzma Yehudit, arguing that risking a run without the National Union could leave the Jewish Home below the electoral threshold.

The New Right party announced on Monday that it would be running independently in the upcoming election in March, officially putting to bed the possibility of a broad alliance of national religious parties to the right of Likud.

“The New Right will run independently in the upcoming election as the party of the ideological and liberal right-wing,” Bennett’s faction said in a statement.

“This is the right-wing bloc’s only chance of reaching 61 seats [in the Knesset],” the party said.

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

Netanyahu has in recent weeks encouraged Bennett’s New Right, Peretz’s Jewish Home, Smotrich’s National Union and  Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit to all run on a united slate of right-wing, national religious parties in order to avoid a scenario in which one or more of the small right-wing parties fail to cross the electoral threshold.

Bennett, by contrast, has maintained that the right-wing bloc is large enough to support two national religious parties to the right of Netanyahu’s Likud — one that is slightly more moderate on social issues and campaigns on the notion of religious-secular partnership as the New Right has done, and another that is more expressly religious and more hardline on social issues.

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