Religious Zionism and Otzma Yehudit close in on far-right unity deal

Tensions between Smotrich’s and Ben Gvir’s factions have grown in recent weeks, as Otzma’s growing popularity has inflated its demands for a unity deal

Jeremy Sharon is The Times of Israel’s legal affairs and settlements reporter

Otzma Yehudit party member Itamar Ben Gvir (R) speaks with then-National Union faction leader Betzalel Smotrich, during a campaign event in Bat Yam, April 6, 2019. (Flash90)
Otzma Yehudit party member Itamar Ben Gvir (R) speaks with then-National Union faction leader Betzalel Smotrich, during a campaign event in Bat Yam, April 6, 2019. (Flash90)

The nationalist Religious Zionism party and the Jewish supremacist Otzma Yehudit party were on the verge of a unity deal Monday night, after weeks of tensions between the two far-right outfits.

In an unusual turn of events, Channel 12 news reported — live on air — the latest offer made by Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich to Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben Gvir for a joint electoral slate for the upcoming election, during its main evening broadcast.

Ben Gvir instantly fired off a statement to the press accepting the offer, adding that the network’s publication of the proposal was the first time he had heard of it.

According to the Religious Zionism party, the offer had been conveyed to Otzma “in recent days.”

Strains between Smotrich and Ben Gvir have been growing in recent weeks, with the former making proposals that Otzma deemed insufficient given its growing popularity.

Ben Gvir took to the media on several occasions to pressure Smotrich into speeding up the unity process before Religious Zionism’s primaries are conducted in September, a strategy that appears to have borne fruit.

Far-right MKs Itamar Ben Gvir (L) and Bezalel Smotrich at the Damascus Gate outside Jerusalem’s Old City on October 20, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

According to the proposed deal, Smotrich and Ben Gvir will co-chair the Religious Zionism Knesset faction and both parties will receive equal numbers of spots in the first 10 positions on the electoral slate, including a mutually agreed candidate for the number seven spot.

Smotrich will take the first position on the list and Ben Gvir second, with the fifth, seventh, ninth and tenth spots being allocated to Otzma, according to the proposal.

Upon hearing the offer, Ben Gvir said he agreed to it “because I have no doubt that MK Smotrich will not oppose putting Otzma’s candidate in at number seven.”

“For the sake of a right-wing victory, I call on Bezalel, let’s sign tonight,” he urged.

A spokesperson for the Religious Zionism party issued a statement following Ben Gvir’s remarks, saying that according to “sources” in the party, the offer was made to Otzma “in recent days,” and that “now is the time to sign” the deal and begin the party’s election campaign.

Allocation of senior ministerial posts, should the party be included in a governing coalition, has not yet been agreed upon, a spokesman for Ben Gvir said.

Smotrich and Ben Gvir ran together under the Religious Zionism banner in the March 2021 election, but the rising popularity on the right of Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben Gvir has led him to make greater demands as the parties head into the November 1 election.

The fate of the Noam party, a minor ultra-conservative group within the Religious Zionism alliance, is yet to be determined. Noam has one MK and runs on an ultra-conservative platform that is explicitly anti-LGBT.

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