The Jewish Home party on Tuesday night for the first time selected a woman as its leader, choosing Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Hagit Moshe to head the right-wing religious Zionist party ahead of the March elections.
The development seemed set to secure an alliance between Jewish Home and two other hard-right parties that would back Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in his bid to be reelected.
Moshe secured victory with 472 votes of the party’s central committee, soundly defeating her challenger Nir Orbach, who won just 369.
While Moshe is seen as aligned with Netanyahu, Orbach is a close associate of Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett, who is aiming to replace the prime minister.
Moshe’s win was welcomed by two other religious Zionist parties, MK Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionism party and the extreme right Otzma Yehudit.
Speaking after the results came in, Moshe declared she is “committed to uniting religious Zionism,” in a hint at mergers with other parties.
Smotrich, who recently left Yamina to set up his own party, wished Moshe success and echoed her calls for unity.
“Our wonderful public deserves unity,” he tweeted. “It is time to return the togetherness and bring light to the sons and daughters of religious Zionism. I am sure we will do this.”
Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben Gvir said in a statement he hopes Moshe will be a partner in unifying the religious Zionist movement to “prevent the establishment of a leftist government. Every already knows that without unity to the right of Bennett, a left-wing government will be established.”
The Yamina party is relatively liberal on matters of religion-and-state and is looking to expand its appeal beyond religious voters as part of Bennett’s declared run for prime minister. Smotrich is far more conservative, and the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit is further to the right than Smotrich.
During an interview Tuesday with a religious Zionist website, Smotrich declared that Reform Jews are not part of Judaism, according to a report from Zman Yisrael, the Times of Israel’s Hebrew-language sister site.
“We need to make sure that we do not give formal recognition to all kinds of streams that are not part of Judaism,” Smotrich said in response to a question about conversion to Judaism, a key topic of divide between the Orthodox and Reform movements in Judaism. “One can love, one can embrace, one can feel responsibility for all the people of Israel. In the State of Israel — we cannot give a foothold to the distortions of Judaism. ”
A Channel 12 news survey published on Tuesday night found that an alliance of Smotrich and Ben Gvir could clear the electoral threshold for entry into the Knesset, winning four seats. Joining with Jewish Home would further raise those odds.
In a leaked video aired by Channel 12 last week, Netanyahu was shown telling representatives of a protest group of independent business owners that he predicted Smotrich’s party would win enough seats to enable the prime minister, along with his ultra-Orthodox allied parties, to form a majority in the 120-seat Knesset.
According to the report, Netanyahu feared the activists, from the “I Am Shulman” (“Ani Shulman” in Hebrew) Facebook group which has 200,000 followers, could join with his political opponents or attempt to form their own party ahead of the election. In fact, they did exactly that, with the movement’s leader declaring Tuesday he was joining Bennett’s Yamina.
Elections — the fourth in two years — were called last month after the power-sharing government of Likud and Blue and White failed to agree on a budget by a December 23 deadline. The election will be held on March 23.
While horse-race polls are an almost daily occurrence in Israel in the months leading up to elections and are not seen as overly reliable, taken together the surveys can often serve as a general gauge of the political climate and where the vote may be headed.
Shalom Yerushalmi contributed to this report.