Jerusalem Affairs Minister Rafi Peretz, head of the right-wing Jewish Home party, said on Tuesday he would step down ahead of the new election and leave politics.
Peretz in a statement said Jewish Home needed new leadership, ending a short and rocky tenure marked by upheaval and controversy.
The former IDF chief rabbi entered politics ahead of the April 2019 vote and replaced Naftali Bennett as head of Jewish Home, after the latter departed to form his New Right party. In just under two years, he led the party to three elections under various alliances with other nationalist parties, and held two cabinet portfolios, including the education ministry.
Following the March 2020 election, Peretz split his party from Yamina (which was made up of New Right, Jewish Home and National Union) to take up a cabinet post in the government. He was the party’s sole Knesset representative in the outgoing government, as Yamina’s other five seats were comprised of members of the other two parties.
In his announcement, Peretz said he would not lead Jewish Home in the upcoming March election or run in the party’s primaries. He did not rule out a return to politics in the future.
“The election of a new leader for Jewish Home and a new face for the party are the need of the hour,” Peretz wrote on his Facebook page. “This is the time to let new forces break out and lead, and I will make every effort that we succeed.”
Peretz did not further explain his decision to depart politics, but it appeared related to pressure from Naftali Bennett’s right-wing Yamina platform, which is in talks with Jewish Home about an alliance ahead of the March elections.
Peretz said he will continue to serve in his position until the March election.
He said he had made “difficult decisions” as party chief, including by entering the unity government following the last election.
“I believe that religious Zionism must take part in the leadership of the country. And especially during the coronavirus crisis, out of a belief that Israel requires true unity, I decided to enter the unity government and be a loyal representative of religious Zionism,” he said Tuesday.
He touted his time as education minister in June 2019-May-2020, asserting he had reduced educational gaps in Israel’s outlying “periphery” and boosted religious education in schools. He said he had spearheaded remote learning programs at the start of the pandemic.
Peretz said he’d come to the party while it was in crisis “after its previous leadership left it without any preparation,” in an apparent swipe at Bennett.
In his statement, Peretz also discussed his on-again-off-again alliance with the extremist Otzma Yehudit party, including the “difficult decision to give up on the agreement with Otzma Yehudit in order to connect widely with religious Zionism.”
In January 2020, ahead of that year’s March election, Peretz memorably reneged on a political deal with the far-right Otzma Yehudit to rejoin Yamina, buckling to pressure by Netanyahu and other national religious officials. Otzma Yehudit ended up running alone and falling under the Knesset threshold.
“I did this in order to save religious Zionism and not hurt the right with a loss of Knesset seats,” he said.
Peretz’s decision to jump ship from Yamina after the last election was met wtih anger among his Yamina allies, who were shunted to the opposition after failing to cut a deal with the Likud on ministerial portfolios.
Even his decision to take up the Jerusalem Affairs Ministry was marred by squabbling, since Netanyahu convinced him to leave Yamina for the post, but had also promised the position to a Likud lawmaker. Netanyahu tried to walk back his commitment to Peretz, who rejected his offer of a newly-formed Settlement Affairs Ministry, and threatened to go to the opposition hours after announcing he would join Netanyahu.
Jewish Home and Yamina are again looking to merge ahead of the March vote, Jewish Home said in a statement on Tuesday.
“We are negotiating… to restore unity to religious Zionism,” Jewish Home said. “Talks with [Yamina leader] Naftali Bennett are being conducted in a positive atmosphere, with the intention of uniting the ranks and working for the people of Israel, the Land of Israel and the Torah of Israel as we have in the past. We hope to close [a deal] with Bennett soon.”
The Ynet news site said Peretz’s resignation has been a condition for the merger.
Peretz has also generated several high profile controversies over homophobic comments. Last year, while serving as education minister, Peretz came under fire for an interview where he appeared to call same-sex marriage unnatural.
In 2019, Peretz faced strong criticism for voicing support for conversion therapy, explaining in a TV interview how he had referred students to the treatment and saw it was “possible” to change their sexual orientation. He later walked back the statements after coming under heavy criticism from lawmakers across the political spectrum.
He rejected the Trump administration’s Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, saying, “We will not accept the establishment of a Palestinian state in my homeland. I will oppose any mention of a Palestinian state in legislation to come.”
Peretz was diagnosed with COVID-19 in August, and has since recovered.