Netanyahu pressures spurned extremist party to drop out of race

Likud tells Kahanists to follow example of left-winger Stav Shaffir, but Otzma Yehudit leader Ben Gvir spurns request, in repeat of fight ahead of September vote

Otzma Yehudit party leader Itamar Ben Gvir speaks to reporters at the Knesset, January 15, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Otzma Yehudit party leader Itamar Ben Gvir speaks to reporters at the Knesset, January 15, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Thursday for extreme-right politician Itamar Ben Gvir to drop out of the upcoming election, after the Otzma Yehudit leader was given the cold shoulder by an alliance of national-religious parties.

Netanyahu had unsuccessfully pushed for Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit party to be included in the Yamina union, threatening to fire its leader Naftali Bennett as defense minister if he would not absorb the far-right faction.

“The prime minister now expects Ben Gvir, with all the difficulty involved, to quit the race in order to ensure right-wing rule,” an associate of Netanyahu said, in a statement sent to reporters on condition of anonymity.

Ben Gvir was left in the cold late Wednesday as a last-second flurry of political horsetrading ended with Jewish Home breaking its agreement to run with Otzma Yehudit and allying with New Right and National Union instead. Otzma responded by filing an independent slate to run in the March election.

The statement drew a parallel between Ben Gvir and MK Stav Shaffir, who announced Wednesday she would not attempt an independent run in the March 2 elections after being left out of a left-wing merger, in order to not draw votes away from Labor-Gesher-Meretz.

“Just as Stav Shaffir compromised to ensure the a left-wing victory and the uprooting of settlements, Ben Gvir must quit to ensure a right-wing victory and prevent uprooting of settlements,” the source said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Zehut party leader Moshe Feiglin at a joint press conference at Kfar Hamacabiah in Ramat Gan announcing Zehut’s withdrawal from the September elections, on August 29, 2019. (Flash90)

While calling for Ben Gvir to pull his candidacy, Netanyahu did not offer anything in return for doing so.

Before elections in September, which failed to produce a government, the premier promised Moshe Feiglin a ministerial portfolio for pulling his Zehut party out of the race.

Netanyahu also reportedly unsuccessfully pushed for Otzma to drop out of that race. The party garnered some 80,000 votes, which would have equaled two seats had the party crossed the 3.25 percent Knesset threshold.

Ben Gvir quickly fired back at Netanyahu’s call for him to step aside.

“If the prime minister had quit, a government would have been formed. [Netanyahu] should not preach to Ben Gvir what he himself isn’t doing,” Otzma Yehudit said in a statement, referring to the fact that centrist party Blue and White had been ready to form a unity government so long as Netanyahu stepped down as prime minister.

The party also doubled down on its vow to remain in the race and said if Netanyahu wanted a right-wing government, he should not try to hurt Otzma Yehudit’s electoral chances.

The Netanyahu associate also kept up the criticism of Bennett for refusing to partner with Otzma Yehudit, signaling that Likud would start campaigning against Bennett’s Yamina for right-wing votes.

“Naftali Bennett’s veto of Ben Gvir placed right-wing rule in danger,” the statement said.

It praised Education Minister Rafi Peretz, who heads Jewish Home, for breaking his agreement to run with Otzma Yehudit and instead joining Yamina.

“The prime minister praises the leadership shown by Rabbi Rafi Peretz, who despite the high personal cost acted and minimized the damage Bennett did to the right-bloc and saved votes for the bloc,” they said.

Yamina lawmakers Naftali Bennett (L) and Rafi Peretz at the Knesset on October 29, 2019. (Flash90)

Netanyahu’s call for Ben Gvir to quit joined that of numerous top ministers from his Likud party, who fear votes for Otzma Yehudit will be wasted in the elections because the party may not clear the electoral threshold, leaving the right far short of a parliamentary majority.

The prime minister called on right-wingers not to back Otzma Yehudit when it insisted on running in September’s elections — after having similarly tried unsuccessfully to include it in Yamina — saying a vote for the party would go to the “trash.”

Before elections in April, which also failed to produce a government, Netanyahu brokered a merger between two of Yamina’s constituent factions and Otzma Yehudit, though that alliance failed to get enough votes to give Ben Gvir a Knesset seat.

That merger drew sharp criticism from leading American Jewish groups and Netanyahu’s political rivals, who said it could bring the ideological descendants of extremist rabbi Meir Kahane into the Knesset.

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