Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is again urging a merger of religious and far-right parties ahead of the March election, as he did ahead of Israel’s past three elections, according to multiples reports Tuesday.
According to Channels 12 and 13, the prime minister has promised Bezalel Smotrich of the National Religious Party that he’ll place a candidate of Smotrich’s choice on Likud’s slate and offer him at least one ministerial portfolio if he merges with Itamar Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit.
According to Kan News, Netanyahu has also promised to allow new settlement construction in the West Bank in exchange for the merger going forward, and to give Smotrich all credit for the move.
In February 2019 Netanyahu was heavily criticized at home and abroad, drawing a rare protest even from pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, after engineering a deal for Otzma Yehudit to join two other right-wing factions, a pact which almost saw Ben Gvir enter the Knesset in the April 2019 election.
Otzma Yehudit is made up of followers of late extremist rabbi Meir Kahane. It supports encouraging emigration of non-Jews from Israel and expelling Palestinians and Israeli Arabs who refuse to declare loyalty to Israel and accept diminished status in an expanded Jewish state whose sovereignty extends throughout the West Bank. Ben Gvir’s former running mate, ex-MK Michael Ben-Ari, was disqualified from running for the Knesset over racism accusations.
Before the September 2019 elections, and after failing to convince leaders of the right-wing Yamina party to include Otzma Yehudit in their alliance, Netanyahu waged an aggressive campaign against Otzma Yehudit.
He did the same ahead of the March 2020 elections, after then-Jewish Home chairman Rafi Peretz broke his agreement to run with Otzma Yehudit and agreed to once again merge his faction into Naftali Bennett’s Yamina, leaving Ben Gvir out in the cold.
However, Otzma Yehudit has refused to drop out of the running in all cases, regularly winning tens of thousands of votes, but not enough to enter parliament. The prime minister sees the extremist faction as a spoiler that has repeatedly funneled votes away from other right-wing parties, while ultimately failing to make it into the Knesset.
The deadline for parties to submit their final slates for the election is on Thursday night.
A Channel 13 poll Tuesday showed that while neither Smotrich’s Religious Zionism party nor Otzma Yehudit are expected to pass the 3.25% electoral threshold to enter the Knesset on their own, a joint slate could win six seats.
However, the poll showed that with or without the two parties entering the Knesset, Netanyahu is expected to fall short of the 61 seats he needs to form a coalition.
A coalition of his many rivals is possible, but remains highly problematic, given their wildly differing ideologies.
National elections — the fourth in two years — were called after the power-sharing government of Likud and Blue and White failed to agree on a budget by a December 23 deadline.
The election, like the previous three votes, is largely seen as a referendum on Netanyahu’s rule amid his ongoing trial on corruption charges, as well as his government’s varied success battling the pandemic.