Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly praised a deal uniting the Jewish Home and Otzma Yehudit factions ahead of the March elections, a move that will potentially bring anti-Arab extremists back into the political fold.
The far-right union has prompted condemnation, including by some within Jewish Home, for legitimizing Otzma Yehudit’s Kahanist leaders and possibly pushing them into the Knesset.
According to the unsourced report, Netanyahu phoned Jewish Home leader Education Minister Rafi Peretz on Friday to offer congratulations for the deal with Otzma Yehudit, which means Jewish Power. The merger was announced Friday morning by Peretz and Otzma Yehudit head Itamar Ben Gvir.
Netanyahu’s office denied the Channel 12 report Saturday, though the prime minister has in the past taken an active role in pushing for mergers with the extremist party.
“There was no conversation, Netanyahu is not intervening,” a Prime Minister’s Office spokesperson told the channel.
The report added that Netanyahu was expected to take a more active role in pushing for right-wing parties to unite after the Likud leadership primary on Thursday, assuming he defeats challenger Gideon Sa’ar.
Netanyahu has pushed over the past year for smaller right-wing parties to band together in order to increase the number of seats his potential right-wing allies get and in order to keep independent factions that will not meet the 3.25 percent Knesset electoral threshold from drawing votes away.
His engineering in February of a merger between Jewish Home-National Union and Otzma Yehudit drew vociferous outrage in Israel and abroad, including from traditional allies such as the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, which rarely criticizes Israeli politicians.
Despite that allliance, the prime minister failed to cobble together a coalition in May after right-wing parties New Right and Zehut fell under the electoral threshold and Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman refused to join over a disagreement on the ultra-Orthodox enlistment law.
The prime minister again tried to bring Otzma Yehudit into the fold of Shaked’s Yamina party ahead of the September election, but was rebuffed by Ben Gvir, who insisted on running alone.
Otzma Yehudit’s leadership is made up of disciples of the American-born rabbi Meir Kahane, whose Jewish supremacist Kach party was banned under Israeli law for incitement to racism and later declared a terrorist group.
The party 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.
A column in pro-Netanyahu tabloid Israel Hayom Sunday praised the merger as a “necessary step” for right-wing victory.
The column also criticized local Jewish Home party leaders who wrote a letter to Peretz Saturday complaining about the move, which they said had been struck in secret.
In their letter to Peretz, party officials lamented his failure to consult with Jewish Home members to achieve “better and more natural” mergers. They warned that the union with Otzma Yehudit would prevent other alliances.
Peretz is also seeking a deal with National Union’s Bezalel Smotrich, continuing an alliance that is over a decade old. The Jewish Home-Otzma Yehudit agreement left open spots on the united list for National Union candidates if they agree to join, but Smotrich, who is seeking to lead the joint slate, will be given the No. 2 spot while the less popular and less experienced Peretz will remain at the helm.
The parties are also seeking to merge with the nationalist New Right, but on Saturday night the faction’s No 2. Ayelet Shaked indicated to Channel 12 news that her party was looking to remain as a “liberal, values-driven, right-wing movement.”
Ben Gvir stood by his merger with the Jewish Home in a Channel 12 interview on Saturday evening, saying the move would ensure that the Netanyahu-led right-wing bloc would receive 61 seats and be able to form a government without Blue and White or Yisrael Beytenu.
He also confirmed that he would support immunity for Netanyahu in three criminal cases the prime minister has been charged in. Netanyahu has been thought to be seeking right-wing allies who support giving him immunity to form a government.
Although Ben Gvir said the union would benefit Netanyahu, he indicated he could refuse to join a Likud-led coalition if his demands were not met
“If he drops 50 missiles on Gaza in exchange for everyone they shoot, I’ll join him in the government. If not, I’ll back him from [the opposition],” he told the channel.