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Otzma Yehudit head says Kahane was ‘holy’; backs expulsion of ‘disloyal’ Arabs

Ben Gvir says that in talks with Netanyahu associates ahead of far-right merger, both sides recognized that PM can’t form right-wing coalition without his slate in Knesset

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

Itamar Ben Gvir of the Otzma Yehudit party speaks during a ceremony in Jerusalem marking the 27th anniversary of the killing of extremist rabbi Meir Kahane, November 7, 2017. The sign behind him reads, "Kahane was right!" (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Itamar Ben Gvir of the Otzma Yehudit party speaks during a ceremony in Jerusalem marking the 27th anniversary of the killing of extremist rabbi Meir Kahane, November 7, 2017. The sign behind him reads, "Kahane was right!" (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Itamar Ben Gvir, head of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party, said Thursday that the party’s late spiritual mentor, the extremist rabbi Meir Kahane, was “a holy man” and a “hero.”

He clarified, though, in an interview with Channel 13 News that he does not agree with all the rabbi’s teachings. For instance, he does not believe in the expulsion of all Israeli Arabs, he said, “only those who are not loyal to the state.”

Asked how he planned to implement such a policy, Ben Gvir said he would not approach every single Arab citizen and ask them whether they are loyal to the state. Rather, he specified that an Arab who hurls a Molotov Cocktail at Israeli troops should be kicked out of the country.

Ben Gvir was also dismissive of remarks made by Likud Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin earlier Thursday that Otzma Yehudit, which merged with Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionism Party at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s behest, will not be part of the coalition.

The Otzma Yehudit chairman said he had been in contact with Netanyahu confidants in recent weeks and both sides understood that Netanyahu cannot form a right-wing coalition without his far-right faction in the Knesset.

Ben Gvir’s positions have made him no friends with the majority-Arab Joint List, and one of its supporters, Haifa councilman Raja Za’atra, was filmed harassing the Otzma Yehudit chairman at the Knesset on Thursday.

With Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s backing, Otzma Yehudit merged with Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionism Party in the hopes of garnering enough votes to enter the Knesset.

Netanyahu has been repeatedly panned in Israel and abroad for his efforts to bring the extremist party into parliament, while the prime minister insists it is necessary to prevent tens of thousands of right-wing votes from going to waste.

The prime minister was said to have promised Smotrich that he’d place a candidate of Smotrich’s choice on Likud’s slate and offer him at least one ministerial portfolio if he merged with Otzma Yehudit. Kan news reported that 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.

Ben Gvir will be third on the merged slate, meaning he will win a seat in the Knesset if the merged ticket clears the 3.25% Knesset threshold.

Otzma Yehudit is made up of followers of the late racist rabbi Meir Kahane, a former MK whose Kach party was banned from the Knesset in the 1980s — the first instance of a party being banned for racism. Otzma Yehudit 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 accusations of racism.

A similar merger two years ago was denounced by major US Jewish organizations AIPAC and the AJC. AIPAC called Otzma Yehudit a “racist and reprehensible party.”

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