Netanyahu meets Ben Gvir, Smotrich in bid to press far-right merger

Opposition chief hosts the leaders of Otzma Yehudit and Religious Zionism at his Caesarea home, as he urges them to reunite before election

From left to right: Otzma Yehudit leader MK Itamar Ben Gvir, Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu, and Religious Zionism head MK Bezalel Smotrich, in 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
From left to right: Otzma Yehudit leader MK Itamar Ben Gvir, Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu, and Religious Zionism head MK Bezalel Smotrich, in 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu invited far-right MKs Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich for a meeting Friday, stepping up his efforts to get their Otzma Yehudit and Religious Zionism parties to run on a joint ticket in the November 1 elections.

According to Channel 12 news, Likud MK Yariv Levin — considered Netanyahu’s right-hand man in the Knesset — was also to participate in the meeting at the party leader’s home in Caesarea.

There was no confirmation from the sides on the meeting, which was widely reported by Hebrew media.

Netanyahu has been urging the far-right parties to join together again, warning that only by running together are both assured of entering the Knesset and preventing wasted votes. Both factions are expected to back his bid to regain the premiership, with the Likud leader likely needing every possible bit of support to reach a majority in the 120-seat Knesset.

Polls published Wednesday showed Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit party soaring to become one of the nation’s largest parties, even if the extremist firebrand resists pressure to again merge Knesset slates with fellow right-wing faction Religious Zionism.

Polls on all three major Israeli networks gave Otzma Yehudit between eight and nine seats were elections held today, a stunning result for Ben Gvir, whose hardline ideology was until recently considered well outside the mainstream of Israeli politics.

In a potential blow to Netanyahu’s chances of retaking power, one survey showed Religious Zionism falling below the threshold unless it merges with Ben Gvir, while another had it barely squeaking in.

Overall, the surveys indicated that no presumptive camp would have enough support to break the political deadlock that will have sent Israelis to the polls five times in under four years when the November 1 election rolls around.

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu urges the far-right Religious Zionism and Otzma Yehudit parties to reunite for the upcoming Knesset elections, in a video released on August 23, 2022. (Screen capture: Facebook)

Israeli TV polls are often too small to accurately predict election results, with margins of error large enough to sway as many as five seats, but they can offer a general overview of public opinion and often influence jockeying between politicians.

According to the Channel 12 poll on Wednesday, were elections held now, Otzma Yehudit would get nine seats, while Religious Zionism, led by Smotrich, would fail to pass the electoral threshold, leaving a presumptive pro-Netanyahu bloc with 58 seats.

If the two run together, they would garner 11 seats, though the pro-Netanyahu bloc would only edge up to 59 seats.

Smotrich and Ben Gvir ran on a shared ticket in the 2021 elections. But negotiations to once again submit a joint electoral list in November’s election collapsed earlier this month, with Ben Gvir accusing Smotrich of negotiating in “bad faith” and refusing to make any concessions.

Head of the Religious Zionist Party MK Bezalel Smotrich waves an Israeli flag at Damascus Gate outside Jerusalem’s Old City, during Jerusalem Day celebrations, May 29, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

On Wednesday, Ben Gvir told Kan news that he is willing to run together but maintained his insistence that there be equal representation of both parties on the slate.

Aware of the possibly harmful outcome of them running separately, Netanyahu on Tuesday publicly urged the two parties to not “take the risk.”

In a video message posted on social media, Netanyahu pleaded with Smotrich and Ben Gvir to resurrect their alliance — echoing similar efforts he made in 2019 and 2021.

Netanyahu’s pointed statement was welcomed by Smotrich, who said the pair are still working on a deal, but shrugged off by Ben Gvir, who accused his erstwhile political partner of dragging his heels.

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