Netanyahu calls Smotrich’s dad, upping pressure for far-right merger

PM also phones prominent national religious rabbis in continued effort to push Jewish Home to unite with extremist Otzma Yehudit and Yachad parties

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

Left, Bezalel Smotrich, after winning the election for chairman of the National Union, at the Crown Plaza hotel in Jerusalem, January 14, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90). Right, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits a drill of the Armored Corps in Shizafon Base, in southern Israel on January 23, 2019. (Flash90)
Left, Bezalel Smotrich, after winning the election for chairman of the National Union, at the Crown Plaza hotel in Jerusalem, January 14, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90). Right, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits a drill of the Armored Corps in Shizafon Base, in southern Israel on January 23, 2019. (Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the father of the Jewish Home party’s Bezalel Smotrich on Monday, urging him to convince his son to merge with a pair of far-right factions that otherwise will likely not pass the electoral threshold in April’s national ballot.

Smotrich — who is number two on the Jewish Home list after folding his National Union party into it last week — confirmed the phone call, which was first reported by Channel 13.

Netanyahu also called up prominent national religious rabbis Haim Druckman, Eli Sadan and Yehoshua Tsukerman, the spiritual adviser of Jewish Home head Rafi Peretz, in an effort to pressure the Jewish Home leaders to unite with Otzma Yehudit along with the Yachad party headed by Eli Yishai.

The calls came shortly before the Jewish Home party declined Netanyahu’s invitation to meet in person for discussions on the matter.

From left, Orit Strok, Yifat Erlich, Betzalel Smotrich, Rafi Peretz and Ofir Sofer posing after agreeing to form a joint Jewish Home National Union Knesset slate February 14, 2019. (Courtesy)

For the past several weeks, Netanyahu has been pushing for Jewish Home to team up with the low-polling Otzma Yehudit and Yachad parties, arguing that a failure on their part to clear the Knesset electoral threshold could deprive his Likud of enough potential partners to form a ruling coalition. Parties have until Thursday at 10 p.m. to submit their final slates for the upcoming elections.

“We are running an independent party that makes its own decisions and is not managed by the prime minister or anyone else,” party leaders Peretz and Smotrich said in a statement explaining their decision to not meet with the prime minister.

“We call on the prime minister not to let up in his efforts, set a personal example and bring about as many mergers on the right in the few remaining days before [party] lists are submitted,” they added, suggesting that Likud itself should agree to unite with Otzma Yehudit, rather than pressing other parties to merge with it.

Small right-wing factions have faced growing calls from Likud to team up for the elections after ministers Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked split from Jewish Home and formed the New Right party, leaving their former colleagues hovering around the minimal level of support needed to enter the Knesset — 3.25 percent of the national vote.

Merger talks have swirled around both Otzma Yehudit and Yachad, but the majority of speculation has focused on the former party as the latter hasn’t been able to poll above half a seat.

Benzi Gopstein, leader of the far-right Jewish group Lehava, speaks at a ceremony in Jerusalem honoring the late Jewish extremist leader Rabbi Meir Kahane on November 17, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

While a union with Otzma Yehudit would likely add roughly two seats’ worth of voters to Jewish Home, the leaders are reportedly wary of losing more moderate voters who would not be able to stomach voting for the extremist faction, which is led by Michael Ben Ari, Itamar Ben Gvir, Baruch Marzel and Benzi Gopstein. The far-right party’s leadership proudly endorses the ideology of Meir Kahane, whose Kach party was banned in Israel under anti-terrorism laws in the 1980s.

For their part, Otzma Yehudit’s leaders have argued that their supporters’ ideological differences with Jewish Home, and particularly its sister faction National Union, are rather limited and that those uncomfortable with the idea of a merger can vote for the New Right or Likud instead.

The possibility hasn’t been raised as frequently as other alliances, but an Otzma Yehudit spokesman said his party was also looking into a merger with Yachad.

All sides have stressed that what is currently on the table is the formation of a technical bloc, not a full-fledged union, and that each faction would be free to peel off on its own after election day.

Nonetheless, leaders of both Otzma Yehudit and Jewish Home continued trading barbs on Tuesday as to who was responsible for the lack of merger thus far. Peretz, in a tweet, called on the far-right faction to “sober up” and accept the offer that’s been made, but Itamar Ben Gvir and other Otzma Yehudit candidates have claimed that Jewish Home has not offered them realistic spots on a joint slate.

Election poster created by supporters of Yachad Party leader Eli Yishai showing him with a slogan that says ‘So that there won’t be a child with a father and a father.’ (Twitter)

Asked if he believed his party would manage to merge with Otzma Yehudit by Thursday night, Smotrich told The Times of Israel: “God willing.”

But for their part, Jewish Home candidates Moti Yogev and Yifat Erlich told reporters Tuesday that they were not interested in adding Otzma Yehudit to their slate and advised that Netanyahu do so himself. Smotrich made a similar recommendation to the premier on Monday, telling Army Radio that if Likud is worried about losing mandates, it should merge with Yisrael Beytenu, Kulanu or the Zehut party headed by Moshe Feiglin, which all have been hovering near the electoral threshold in recent polls.

In a further addition to the crowded field on the right, scandal-prone Likud MK Oren Hazan announced Monday he would run for the Knesset as the head of Tzomet, a small right-wing party founded in the 1980s by former military chief Rafael Eitan.

The move comes after Hazan, who frequently courted controversy with disparaging remarks about female and disabled lawmakers, failed to secure a realistic spot in Likud’s primaries earlier this month.

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