Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is reportedly seeking to persuade the far-right Otzma Yehudit party to withdraw from the election race by promising its leaders that the next Knesset will lower the electoral threshold to improve its future political prospects.
The prime minister is concerned right-wing votes would be “wasted” in the September 17 vote on Otzma Yehudit, which is currently polling just below the 3.25 percent mark to enter parliament, thus jeopardizing his chances of forming a government coalition of at least 61 seats.
Netanyahu’s aides have met with Otzma Yehudit representatives several times over the past two weeks, the Yedioth Ahronoth daily reported on Tuesday. They were promising to lower the threshold — raised in 2014 — to make it easier for small parties, such as Otzma Yehudit, to enter the Knesset.
According to the report, Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben Gvir has also demanded that Likud’s West Bank branch work more closely with his party, that Yamina stop its attacks on Otzma Yehudit, and that Netanyahu’s campaign in the run-up to the vote not focus on the party’s supporters.
Sources close to Netanyahu assessed that Ben Gvir would reject the overtures and run anyway, according to the report.
The newspaper report quoted Ben Gvir as acknowledging a “very good meeting” with Netanyahu’s negotiator Natan Eshel.
But speaking to Galey Yisrael radio on Tuesday, Ben Gvir denied any deal that would see Otzma Yehudit quit the election race was in the offing.
“No one spoke to me about any withdrawal deal,” he said, adding that the story was “cooked up” for Yedioth and “they didn’t even check with me about the article.”
“They fell hard for fake news,” added Ben Gvir. “There was no deal and there won’t be one.”
Yamina leader Ayelet Shaked on Tuesday urged Otzma Yehudit to withdraw from the race.
“Otzma Yehudit won’t clear the electoral threshold and its two seats will move over to the left,” the former justice minister told Israel Radio. “Ben Gvir must show responsibility and withdraw his candidacy.”
Polls published Sunday indicated that Otzma Yehudit was edging closer to clearing the electoral threshold in the elections. A poll by the Kan public broadcaster had Otzma Yehudit winning 2.9 percent of the vote, while a Channel 13 survey gave the party 2.8%. Both are still shy of the 3.25% threshold for entering the Knesset, but are up from previous polls that had it hovering between 1.8% and 2.5% of the vote.
Part of that increased support likely comes from the supporters of the far-right Zehut party, which dropped out of the race last week in a deal between leader Moshe Feiglin and Netanyahu.
Feiglin announced Thursday that his party will drop out of the running in exchange for a promise from Likud of a ministerial post and the liberalization of the medical marijuana market.
However, Kan said its survey indicated that votes of Zehut voters were evenly distributed among several other parties and did not impact the overall shape of the elections.
Netanyahu was widely criticized ahead of the April elections for brokering a deal between the Union of Right Wing Parties and Otzma Yehudit to run on a joint ticket. Despite the agreement, the prime minister failed to cobble together a coalition in May after several small right-wing parties — the 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 during the current election campaign, but was rebuffed by Ben Gvir, who insisted on running alone.
The far-right party accused of anti-Arab racism has also been hit by court decisions against three of its four top leaders. Michael Ben-Ari, Baruch Marzel and Bentzi Gopstein have been disqualified from standing in the election over their longstanding advocacy for racist policies and support for political violence.
Otzma Yehudit leaders have described themselves as proud disciples of the late rabbi Meir Kahane. The party supports encouraging emigration of non-Jews from Israel, and expelling Palestinians and Israeli Arabs who refuse to declare loyalty to Israel and to accept diminished status in an expanded Jewish state whose sovereignty extends throughout the West Bank.
Otzma Yehudit’s former No. 1, Ben Ari, was barred from running in the April elections by the Supreme Court under anti-racism laws, and was replaced at the party’s helm by Ben Gvir.