The Union of Right Wing Parties officially launched its election campaign Monday evening, presenting a fraternal, unified front. But the show of solidarity was likely eased by the fact that a significant chunk of the political alliance was nowhere to be found at the Jerusalem Gardens Hotel event hall.
Despite agreeing to run on a joint slate, Jewish Home, led by Rafi Peretz, and the National Union, headed by Bezalel Smotrich, have decided to campaign separately from the far-right Otzma Yehudit. The latter faction’s name was included on the URWP logos plastered on blue and green signs, flags and balloons throughout the darkly-lit auditorium — but representatives, activists and supporters from the extremist party were not visible among the roughly 250 people in attendance.
“This is what was meant by a technical bloc,” said Jewish Home member Yaron Feld, who used the terminology employed by party leaders in their apparent effort to downplay the nature of the alliance.
The merger sparked considerable uproar for all but guaranteeing the entry of up to two self-described disciples of the extremist rabbi Meir Kahane into the upcoming Knesset. However, most of the criticism from opposition lawmakers and Jewish groups abroad has been directed at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who orchestrated the merger in an effort to ensure that his longtime coalition partner Jewish Home would cross the electoral threshold.
Still, Jewish Home and National Union members have felt a need to differentiate themselves from their Otzma Yehudit colleagues. “They aren’t coming from the same study hall as us,” Jewish Home candidate Idit Silman told reporters moments before the start of the event, describing the relationship with a term taken from the Torah world.
Prior to its approval by party members, the merger had even raised some criticism from within the ranks of the national religious parties by those who felt Otzma Yehudit was to extreme a partner to ally with. But while reporters on Monday were interested in discussing the union’s black sheep faction, party members appeared to view talk of the merger as last month’s news — just about everyone in attendance appeared to have moved on.
The emphasis instead appeared to be on broadening the national religious camp’s appeal to other sectors in the country.
Commencing the evening, Silman spoke of the mixed crowd of both religious and secular supporters who had descended on Jerusalem for the event. (For this reporter uncovered heads were even harder to spot than Otzma Yehudit candidates, but the effort to cater to those outside the settler base continued undaunted.)
Referencing the URWP campaign slogan “Committed to more,” Peretz said this was “not a sectoral commitment, but a commitment to all of Israel.”
“I have religious and non-religious children, special forces soldiers and national service volunteers. I love them all. This is the philosophy that accompanied me as the chief military rabbi. I was the rabbi of all soldiers,” Peretz proclaimed.
While speakers referenced the religious nature of their camp quite a bit, they also emphasized values of a decidedly universal nature that many Israelis would likely be able to get behind.
Peretz, for instance, spoke of the importance of service and sacrifice: principles he said he had learned through his national religious upbringing.
And while there was typical talk of West Bank annexation sprinkled throughout the speeches given by Peretz and party number two Smotrich, such messaging took something of a back seat to pledges of support for other periphery towns — particularly those along the Gaza border.
“A commitment to care for the residents of the south,” was at the top of Peretz’s proposed security platform, and the URWP chairman used the opportunity to take a subtle shot at Netanyahu. “Bibi, I invite you to my home, to Naveh. Experience just one red alert siren. You will see the children running and looking for protection between the sand dunes,” he said, urging the premier to stop using “proportional” measures against Hamas in Gaza.
Smotrich during his speech did reference one Otzma Yehudit candidate, lauding attorney Itamar Ben Gvir for Monday’s decision by state prosecutors to drop a case against clients of his previously indicted on terror charges.
“This victory will be taught to law students for generations to come,” he claimed. This was met by a smattering of applause, but most in the room appeared keen to move on to other subjects.
In the remainder of the evening’s most fiery and enthusiastically received remarks, Smotrich said the party would address high crime rates in the non-Jewish sectors of both northern and southern Israel, a common talking point in right-wing circles. “We will enforce the law in the Negev. Sovereignty is not a theoretical matter: If it is not enforced it does not exist.
“We will put an end to illegal takeover of land by Bedouin in the south and Arabs in the north,” he added to considerable applause.
While Peretz highlighted values, Smotrich emphasized policies. The URWP No. 2 discussed the policy changes his party would seek to enact if placed at the helm of the Education, Public Security, Justice and Religious Affairs Ministries.
Reports have indicated that as part of his deal with Jewish Home to ensure the merger, Netanyahu had promised the party the education portfolio. On Sunday Smotrich caused uproar by saying that as education minister he would do away with the “coercion” in Israel’s schools towards a “religion of liberal democracy.”
However the premier told Likud leaders earlier Monday that the ministry would be saved for one of them. Speaking at the campaign launch, Smotrich slammed the prime minister for apparently backtracking on his promise.
“Netanyahu is a talented and capable man, but not always good under pressure,” he said. “The question of which portfolios we will receive in the next government does not depend on what Netanyahu promised in the past and does not depend on what he says or does not say today. The question of which key positions we will have depends on how much power we will get in these elections.”
With the party currently polling at 6-7 seats, te remarks represented what could be the URWP’s most effective tactic at appealing to constituencies beyond their increasingly religious and nationalist base: targeting right-wing voters fed up with Netanyahu.
Still, even if the party fails to garner the support of new constituencies, it could perhaps take solace in the camaraderie displayed in the room: The limited disagreements voiced at the time of the merger vote last month had dissipated, and if any internal quarrels exist, they were not apparent Monday evening.
Peretz and Smotrich “have really united us,” said the longtime Jewish Home member, Feld. With former party chair Naftali Bennett, he said, “we rose and fell with the leader, but now it feels like more of a team effort.”
Of course, the Jewish Home and National Union leaders were achieving this by neglecting their third political partner, apparently cognizant of the fact that, in their bid to widen their appeal to potential voters in the coming weeks, Otzma Yehudit is largely an electoral liability.