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Netanyahu says far-right Ben Gvir won’t be in cabinet, will be part of coalition

Drawing distinction, PM indicates Kahane disciple won’t be given a ministerial post, but ‘plainly’ will be a coalition member; also says he won’t share premiership with anyone else

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Left photo: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speach at the Likud party's election rally in Ramat Gan on February 29, 2020.  (Gili Yaari/Flash90) Right photo: Itamar Ben Gvir, head of the Otzma Yehudit party, holds a press conference in Jerusalem on February 26, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Left photo: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speach at the Likud party's election rally in Ramat Gan on February 29, 2020. (Gili Yaari/Flash90) Right photo: Itamar Ben Gvir, head of the Otzma Yehudit party, holds a press conference in Jerusalem on February 26, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Wednesday night that the leader of the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit party will not be a part of the next cabinet, but will be a member of his governing coalition.

Netanyahu spoke to right-wing Channel 20 after his Likud party signed a surplus vote-sharing agreement with Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionism Party, which includes the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit. Under the agreement, furthermore, Likud promised that Netanyahu would include Religious Zionism MKs “in any government he forms.”

In his Channel 20 interview, Netanyahu said Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben Gvir, a disciple of the late far-right rabbi Meir Kahane, “will not be part of the government.”

Still, he went on, “Ben Gvir made a technical bloc with the Religious Zionism party, so he will plainly be part of the coalition, as [former Otzma Yehudit MK] Michael Ben Ari was.”

Ben Ari, who was part of Netanyahu’s 2009-2013 coalition as a member of the National Union party in which he headed the Otzma faction, was banned from running in the 2019 elections due to racist comments. The Otzma Yehudit leadership was then taken over by Ben Gvir.

Otzma Yehudit has joined forces with the Religious Zionism Party for the elections as part of a deal engineered by Netanyahu. It supports encouraging emigration of non-Jews from Israel and expelling Palestinians and Arab Israelis who refuse to declare loyalty to Israel and accept diminished status in an expanded Jewish state, whose sovereignty would extend throughout the West Bank.

Itamar Ben Gvir, head of the Otzma Yehudit party, holds a press conference in Jerusalem on February 26, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Ben Gvir is in the third slot on the merged Religious Zionism Party slate, which most polls in the last few days have shown clearing the Knesset threshold and clinching 4-5 seats in the March 23 elections. To enable to deal to go ahead, Netanyahu gave the 28th spot on the Likud slate to a candidate from Religious Zionism.

The vote-sharing agreement signed between Likud and Religious Zionism on Wednesday morning allows the parties to ensure that extra votes they win that don’t add up to a Knesset seat do not go to waste. Instead, the combined leftover votes go to the party closest to winning another seat — and are often sufficient to add that seat to its tally, making the votes potentially decisive in a close race.

In the US, the Democratic Majority for Israel, a centrist group that seeks to bolster support for Israel in the Democratic Party, blasted the “outrageous” agreement, saying “Otzma Yehudit’s racist beliefs are completely at odds with the values of the State of Israel and should have no place in Israeli institutions.”

“It would be shameful if these extremists entered Israel’s parliament. We have faith that Israeli voters will reject this representation in their democracy,” DMFI added.

With polls predicting that Likud would win the most seats in the Knesset but that he would struggle to form a coalition, Netanyahu also told Channel 20 that he won’t agree to another premiership rotation agreement after the March elections and that he is aiming only for a “full right-wing government.”

“There will be no more rotating government. We need one prime minister. Everyone has already understood that,” he said. After the previous elections, Netanyahu agreed to share the office with Benny Gantz, though the coalition did not survive long enough to see the transfer of power.

“And if we get enough votes, and we will, we have a historic opportunity to form a full right-wing government, to achieve the government of our dreams. But for this, we need a large Likud,” Netanyahu added.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Defense Minister Benny Gantz hold a press conference in Tel Aviv on July 27, 2020. (Tal Shahar/Pool/Flash90)

New elections, the fourth since April 2019, were called in December after the power-sharing government of Likud and Blue and White failed to agree on a budget by a December 23 deadline.

This is not the first time Netanyahu has been behind a deal to bring Otzma Yehudit into the political mainstream.

In February 2019, the prime minister was heavily criticized at home and abroad after engineering a deal for Otzma Yehudit to join two other right-wing factions, a pact that almost saw Ben Gvir enter the Knesset in the April 2019 election.

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 Yamina, leaving Ben Gvir out in the cold.

However, Otzma Yehudit 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 has thus previously seen 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.

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