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Religious Zionism primary keeps sitting MKs at top of Knesset slate

Current Knesset members grab the four realistic spots behind Smotrich, who is reportedly negotiating to unify with rebel former Yamina MK Amichai Chikli

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Religious Zionism party head MK Bezalel Smotrich casts his primary vote at a polling station in Jerusalem, August 23, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Religious Zionism party head MK Bezalel Smotrich casts his primary vote at a polling station in Jerusalem, August 23, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Religious Zionism’s Tuesday primary ended with existing lawmakers holding the only realistic spots on the party’s Knesset slate and failing to open its ranks to varied voices, as party leader Bezalel Smotrich said was the primary’s intention.

Current lawmakers MKs Ofir Sofer, Orit Strock, Simcha Rothman and Michal Waldiger were the top vote-getters, respectively, nabbing election slate spots behind Smotrich.

Although currently running separately, Smotrich is expected to try to reunify with ultra-right MK Itamar Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit party in advance of the November 1 elections. When running together, the parties have been polling between 10 and 13 seats.

Party sources say that Smotrich decided to run primaries in hopes of creating a varied list that could attract votes left on the table by the collapse of the right-wing Yamina party, which is now folded into the struggling Zionist Spirit. About a third of Yamina’s 2021 voters are religious Zionist, but many have been reticent about moving to Smotrich because of his party’s sometimes extremist voices.

“The democratic process we embarked on is intended to bring unity and enable the opening of ranks and true partnership between all shades of the spectrum of religious Zionism and the believing right,” Smotrich wrote to party members before ballots opened on Tuesday.

While he did succeed in maintaining geographical variance, a hard-right to ultranationalist spectrum, and maintained a Mizrahi candidate with Tunisian-descendant Sofer, the primary ultimately did not open ranks to realistic spots.

MKs Bezalel Smotrich, Itamar Ben Gvir and MKs from the Religious Zionism party visit the Damascus Gate to Jerusalem’s Old City, October 20, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Although Ben Gvir broke his party away from Smotrich’s umbrella, both leaders are feeling pressure from opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who issued a public call earlier Tuesday to rebroker their marriage in a bid to conserve right-wing votes in an election where every seat may be needed in order to return their right-religious camp to power.

“I call to Itamar – my hand is extended in unity,” Smotrich said while announcing primary results, adding that he agrees with Netanyahu’s calls for unification.

While Ben Gvir is a liability against attracting many former Yamina voters, Smotrich is reportedly pursuing another avenue that could add the more moderate stance his primary failed to deliver.

According to Hebrew media reports, Smotrich is in negotiations with Yamina MK Amichai Chikli to run on a joint list, in return for Chikli’s control of three spots in the first 10 seats on the list.

The secular Chikli is a compelling figure among former Yamina voters, having broken with Yamina shortly after being sworn into Knesset, in protest against the big tent coalition that the right-wing party helped form.

Smotrich brushed off reporters’ questions about Chikli after announcing his primary results, saying instead that “I don’t negotiate in the media.”

Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich presents a “loyalty pledge,” asking other party heads to not form a coalition with the Islamist Ra’am party, August 23, 2022. (Courtesy Religious Zionism)

A spokesperson for Chikli did not respond to a request for comment.

Either unification deal will demand seats on Religious Zionism’s Knesset slate, reducing the impact of the primary exercise.

One of Chikli’s main gripes about the outgoing coalition was its alliance with Islamist Arab party Ra’am, which Smotrich similarly opposes. Smotrich reportedly scuttled a Netanyahu-led attempt in 2021 to form a coalition with Ra’am, passing the baton to what became the outgoing government.

After announcing his list, Smotrich presented reporters with an oversized copy of a “loyalty pledge,” demanding party heads state that “in no circumstance will they form a government with them,” meaning Ra’am and the opposition’s majority Arab Joint List party.

Several of Ra’am’s current outgoing coalition partners have said they would not rely on the party again in a narrow government with a razor-thin majority, but did not dismiss a broader partnership. The Joint List has always been an opposition faction and has railed against Ra’am for mainstreaming into a ruling coalition.

Reiterating his party’s oft-articulated hard-right agenda, Smotrich said that if returned to power, Religious Zionism would work to advance judicial reform, governance in the Negev and Galil – two areas with large Arab populations – extend Israeli sovereignty into the West Bank and reduce the cost of living through market reforms.

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