Otzma Yehudit breaks away from Jewish Home in spat over Knesset seat
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Otzma Yehudit breaks away from Jewish Home in spat over Knesset seat

Far-right partner to Union of Right Wing Parties declares it is looking to cooperate with other contenders in coming elections

Union of Right Wing Parties candidates (from L-R) Rafi Peretz, Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotich pose for a photo on April 9, 2019. (Courtesy)
Union of Right Wing Parties candidates (from L-R) Rafi Peretz, Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotich pose for a photo on April 9, 2019. (Courtesy)

The far-right Otzma Yehudit party on Tuesday morning notified Education Minister Rafi Peretz that it will no longer be cooperating with his Jewish Home party because he is not honoring the terms of their preelection merger agreement.

“Regrettably, in recent months we have not been treated fairly, and your behavior and that of others in Jewish Home was one of using us and casting us aside,” Otzma Yehudit wrote in a letter to Peretz.

By directing the letter at Peretz and his Jewish Home party, Otzma Yehudit appeared to indicate that it was still willing to work with National Union, the third partner in the Union of Right-Wing Parties.

Ahead of the April elections for the 21st Knesset, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu orchestrated the union between the extremist Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) on the one hand and the already-merged Jewish Home party and the National Union on the other, in a bid to ensure they crossed the election threshold.

The alliance, headed by Peretz, ultimately won five seats in the Knesset. However, after Netanyahu failed to form a majority coalition, he dissolved parliament and called fresh elections for September 17.

Education Minister Rafi Peretz arrives for the weekly cabinet meeting, at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, on June 24, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

According to officials in Otzma Yehudit, the URWP agreement stipulated that if any of the party leaders were appointed ministers, they would resign from the Knesset by applying the so-called “Norwegian Law,” allowing Otzma Yehudit’s Itamar Ben Gvir, who was lower down on the list, to become a lawmaker.

Last week, Netanyahu appointed the top two lawmakers in the URWP as ministers in his interim cabinet, putting Peretz in charge of the Education Ministry and giving Bezalel Smotrich the transportation portfolio.

But since then, Peretz has not been taking calls from Otzma Yehudit and showing no intention he plans to resign, Otzma officials charged.

In its Tuesday letter to Peretz, Otzma Yehudit accused him of ingratitude over the contribution that its voters made toward securing the URWP five Knesset seats.

“This is not how you treat your partners, this is not how you say thank you, and as education minister you know that the precise definition of this behavior is ingratitude,” it said.

“We are trying to form other unions that will strengthen the right in the coming elections,” Otzma Yehudit informed Peretz, without elaborating.

Smotrich’s National Union party responded to the letter in a statement, saying it intended to honor the terms of the existing agreement and calling for unity on the religious right.

Transportation Minister Betzalel Smotrich arrives for the weekly cabinet meeting, at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, on June 24, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

“Last night, the party central committee ratified the existing agreement between the National Union, the Jewish Home and Otzma Yehudit,” National Union said. “We call upon and implore our partners to do the same today. We do not have the privilege of once again getting into unnecessary wars within the right-wing camp.

“The National Union will continue to do everything to bring about a joint [election] slate by the religious Zionist parties and the right,” it said.

Channel 13 news reported that Peretz has avoided implementing the Norwegian Law by claiming the agreement only applied to the 21st Knesset and was voided when new elections were called for September.

Smotrich, however, is reportedly still willing to resign his Knesset seat to make way for Ben Gvir. In the days before the April 9 elections, a recording emerged in which Smotrich vowed to do whatever he could to get Ben Gvir into the Knesset and claimed those efforts had the blessing of Netanyahu.

The tensions come as the various right-wing parties have been looking to unite into an even broader front for the September elections.

The entrance of Ben Gvir into the Knesset would likely cause a headache for Peretz and Netanyahu, as the specter of Otzma Yehudit has drawn criticism from Israeli lawmakers and major Jewish groups around the world.

Otzma Yehudit party member Itamar Ben Gvir speaks at a campaign event in Bat Yam, April 6, 2019. (Flash90)

Otzma Yehudit leaders have described themselves as proud disciples of the late rabbi Meir Kahane, who supported violently expelling Arabs from Israel and the West Bank and once proposed legislation outlawing inter-ethnic sexual relations. Kahane’s Kach party was declared illegal by Israeli authorities.

Otzma Yehudit now says 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 extends throughout the West Bank.

Ben Gvir is among several Otzma Yehudit leaders who have a photograph of mass-murderer Baruch Goldstein hanging on a wall in his home. Goldstein killed 29 Muslim worshipers and wounded another 125 in a shooting rampage at Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs holy site in 1994.

The party’s union with Jewish Home was orchestrated by Netanyahu in an effort to prevent losing right-wing votes if the individual parties failed to cross the Knesset threshold of 3.25%. He promised Jewish Home two ministerial posts in his next government, and gave a Jewish Home member the 28th slot on the Likud Knesset slate.

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