Resisting pressure from Netanyahu, far-right Otzma Yehudit runs alone

Itamar Ben Gvir accuses Bennett of ‘blowing up’ merger, claims United Right seeking to join coalition led by Blue and White

Otzma Yehudit's Itamar Ben Gvir speaks to reporters at the Knesset before his far-right party submits its electoral slate to the Central Elections Committee on August 1, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)
Otzma Yehudit's Itamar Ben Gvir speaks to reporters at the Knesset before his far-right party submits its electoral slate to the Central Elections Committee on August 1, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

The far-right Otzma Yehudit party on Thursday filed papers to run in the upcoming elections alone, after announcing the failure of attempts to reach a merger deal with the United Right, despite massive last-minute pressure from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“There were officials who, for reasons of ego, blew this matter up and I direct the blame at [United Right candidate] Naftali Bennett. He apparently has an agreement with [Blue and White No. 2] Yair Lapid, and I really hope that he doesn’t establish a unity government with him,” Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben Gvir told reporters outside the Central Elections Committee headquarters in Jerusalem.

Lapid and other Blue and White leaders called on Bennett and United Right chair Ayelet Shaked to avoid merging with Otzma Yehudit, and have said that they would be willing to sit in a government with the two of them.

Efforts to reach an agreement continued right up until the 10 p.m. deadline, with Ben Gvir saying he had been asked to hold out a little while longer by Netanyahu, who has been pushing for the merger on the grounds that right-wing votes could be wasted if Otzma Yehudit, whose name means Jewish Power, fails to clear the minimum electoral threshold.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu inaugurates a new promenade in the West Bank settlement of Efrat on July 31, 2019. (Courtesy)

“There is one grownup in all this business and that is Prime Minister Netanyahu. His envoy [Likud MK] David Bitan is here and asked us for [another] five minutes,” Ben Gvir told reporters.

Those five minutes came and went, however, and Otzma Yehudit submitted its electoral slate alone.

United Right said over the past week that it had offered Otzma Yehudit the eighth and 13th spots on its slate. But Ben Gvir claimed to reporters that that offer was withdrawn by Shaked and Bennett.

“We wanted to achieve a big merger, a merger of unity,” Ben Gvir said. “The previous time, we prevented a left-wing government and turned [United Right candidates] Rafi Peretz and Bezalel Smotrich into ministers, but they repaid us with ingratitude.”

Otzma Yehudit ran in the Union of Right-Wing Parties (which last week teamed up with Shaked and Bennett’s New Right to form the United Right) in the last election in April as part of an alliance brokered by Netanyahu. The party went on to win five seats, but Otzma Yehudit split off in June over what it said was URWP’s failure to honor the terms of their electoral pact.

Smotrich presented a different narrative of how talks had broken down, placing the blame squarely on Otzma Yehudit. “[They] were concerned with showing us up, not with accepting our offer that would have for sure gotten them an MK into the Kneeset. They preferred to go on an irresponsible adventure that would leave them on the outside and throw right-wing votes to the garbage. And all over ego? If that is the case, then they really are not ripe to enter the Knesset. Period.”

As the United Right submitted its electoral slate after Otzma Yehudit, its leader Shaked said the party had worked hard in an effort to seal a merger agreement. “We made tremendous efforts in recent days to save as many right-wing votes in the upcoming elections,” she insisted.

(L-R) Ayelet Shaked, Naftali Bennett, Bezalel Smotrich and Rafi Peretz announcing a merger between religious right-wing parties, July 29, 2019. (Courtesy)

But Likud officials sided with Otzma Yehudit and similarly accused United Right of acting irresponsibly. “The Likud donated its share in the last election and gave a seat on its list to the Jewish Home. They can contribute to the unification of the entire right this time,” said MK Bitan, the Netanyahu ally who attempted to broker the unity deal.

In the previous election, Netanyahu agreed to place one URWP MK on its slate as part of URWP’s merger agreement with Otzma Yehudit, drawing accusations that he was actively seeking to bring members of a racist party into parliament.

“The fragmenting of the right will cost us many votes and will result in a left-wing government led by Lapid and [Blue and White leader Benny] Gantz,” the Likud party said in a statement. “Voters should vote for Likud, because voting for Likud will ensure a right-wing government led by Netanyahu and prevent a left-wing government with Lapid as prime minister.”

Earlier Thursday, Otzma Yehudit said it was ending its short-lived alliance with another far-right party, Noam, over a disagreement regarding the inclusion of a non-religious candidate on their unified slate.

A Channel 12 poll aired Tuesday said Otzma Yehudit and Noam would receive 1.2 percent and 0.3%, respectively, of the vote, which, combined, would fall well short of the 3.25% needed to enter the Knesset.

Otzma Yehudit, whose leaders are self-described disciples of the late extremist rabbi Meir Kahane, and Noam, which is campaigning on combating LGBT acceptance, first announced Sunday they had agreed to a joint run.

Leading Otzma Yehudit’s list of candidates is Ben Gvir, followed by former Kahane spokesman and current Hebron community leader Baruch Marzel. Next on the slate is activist Adva Biton, whose daughter Adele was killed as a result of a 2013 West Bank terror attack, Otzma Yehudit director-general Yitzhak Wasserlauf, and Benzi Gopstein, who heads the Lehava anti-miscegenation group.

The United Right amalgam, meanwhile, is led by New Right Head Shaked followed by URWP’s Peretz and Smotrich. Former New Right chair Bennett is placed at four followed by URWP’s Moti Yogev and Ofir Sofer. The third and fourth women on the list are URWP’s Idit Silman at eight followed by New Right’s Roni Sassover at nine and Hebron activist Orit Strock at 10. URWP MK Eli Ben Dahan is placed at 13 and at risk of not making it back into the Knesset, based on the latest polls.

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