Right-wing parties puff chests as they seek dominance in merger deal

With Netanyahu nudging, New Right and URWP accuse each other of making ‘unjustified demands’ in talks to form union; Zehut and Otzma Yehudit threaten separate unity deal

Raoul Wootliff is the Times of Israel's former political correspondent and producer of the Daily Briefing podcast.

Union of Right-Wing Parties leader Rafi Peretz (left) and New Right leader Ayelet Shaked. (Flash 90)
Union of Right-Wing Parties leader Rafi Peretz (left) and New Right leader Ayelet Shaked. (Flash 90)

With a week left to finalize electoral slates ahead of September’s nationwide vote, the small parties to the right of Likud are battling each other for prominence as they stake out their conditions for joining a unified faction that would run together as a united list.

The morning after New Right chairwoman Ayelet Shaked met with Union of Right-Wing Parties leader Rafi Peretz, both parties released statements Wednesday insisting they are committed to reaching a deal “even by the end of the day,” but accusing the other side of squandering the chances of a merger by making “unjustified demands.”

According to the New Right, a merger deal that would see Shaked lead a joint slate with each faction receiving equal representation is “more than fair” given the fact that “in all the polls the New Right is significantly larger than the URWP.”

According to the proposal, the number two and three slots on the slate would go to Peretz, who heads the Jewish Home party, and National Union chair Bezalel Smotrich, respectively. The New Right would then take the equal-numbered slots and the URWP would fill the others, giving it an advantage in the case of an odd number of seats.

The New Right said the proposal presented a “significant advantage to the unification of right-wing parties, out of a clear desire for unity and running in one bloc.” It also said that putting Shaked as “the candidate who will be able to bring the largest number of seats,” at the top of the slate, “is a common interest of both parties to maximize the power of the right-wing bloc.”

Shaked was named New Right party leader at a Sunday night press conference, where she called on the other parties to the right of Likud to merge in a united slate under her leadership.

New Right chairwoman Ayelet Shaked speaks to reporters in the West Bank settlement of Efrat on July 22, 2019. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

“We will run to the end, even if there are no mergers, but look at the polls yesterday that put us at eight seats. I believe that it is possible to be an independent and strong party, but would prefer to lead a broad right-wing union,” she said.

The Jewish Home, which ran in April’s election together with the National Union and the far-right Otzma Yehudit party, said, however, that the New Right’s demands were based on “a virtual reality world” in which it has more bargaining power that the URWP despite having failed to enter the Knesset last time around.

“In reality, the Jewish Home-National Union has six Knesset serving members and the New Right has not passed the threshold,” the Jewish Home said in a statement.

Instead of dividing the seats equally, Peretz told Shaked that his party demanded they be split three ways between the New Right, Jewish Home and the National Union.

“We have a willingness to unite, and this is a fateful time, but it is impossible for there not to be a clear representation of religious Zionism in the next Knesset,” the party said in its statement, adding, however, that it would do everything it could to prevent “the irresponsible and reckless possibility of running separately.”

Peretz has thus far rejected the possibility of stepping down from the number one spot of any slate on which he would run. A group of prominent national religious rabbis had backed him up in recent weeks, asserting that a religious Zionist party should be run by someone who’s religious. Shaked is secular, in addition to being a woman, which some more hard-line rabbis have made an issue of.

Peretz is also reportedly being backed up by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who may want to avoid dealing with a strengthened far-right bloc in coalition negotiations.

Education Minister Rafi Peretz, chairman of the Jewish Home party, speaks at a party meeting on June 19, 2019. (Yehuda Haim/Flash90)

But Peretz is facing pressure to cede his top spot from several prominent members of his base, following several weeks of political storm after he referred to the intermarriage rate among US Jewry as a “second Holocaust” and then spoke out in apparent support of gay conversion therapy.

On Monday, Kan and Channel 12 polls predicted that if Shaked were to lead a united New Right-URWP slate, the bloc would get 13 or 12 seats, respectively, as opposed to the totals of 11 and 12 seats they’d garner if the two parties ran separately.

The smaller right-wing parties

At the same time as the negotiations between Shaked and Peretz, two other right-wing parties — Otzma Yehudit, which left the URWP in recent weeks but is seeking to rejoin the slate, and Zehut, which also failed to cross the electoral threshold in April — are also positioning themselves ahead of negotiations to join the mega-merger.

In a possible bid to pressure Shaked and Peretz, Zehut chairman Moshe Feiglin confirmed Wednesday morning that he and Otzma Yehudit representatives were in talks about the possibility of running together, without the New Right and the URWP.

“It is possible that if we have no choice, we will join Otzma Yehudit, even though this is not our preferred option,” Feiglin told Galey Yisrael radio.

Netanyahu is reportedly once again urging that Otzma Yehudit be included in any merger in order to increase its ballot-box showing in the September 17 elections..

Moshe Feiglin, head of the Zehut party, during an election campaign tour in the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on April 4, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Jewish Home and National Union agreed to join forces with Otzma Yehudit ahead of the April elections to form the URWP, amid intense pressure from Netanyahu. The prime minister feared that if any of the three parties ran separately, they wouldn’t clear the 3.25 percent electoral threshold and their votes would be lost to the right-wing bloc he needed to bring him to the premiership for a fourth consecutive term.

Leaders of Otzma Yehudit, or “Jewish Power,” have described themselves as proud disciples of the late rabbi Meir Kahane, who supported violently expelling Arabs from Israel and the West Bank and once proposed legislation outlawing inter-ethnic sexual relations. Kahane’s Kach organization is classified as a terror group by the US and his political party is forbidden from running in Israeli elections.

Otzma Yehudit now says it supports encouraging emigration of non-Jews from Israel, and expelling Palestinians and Arab Israelis who refuse to declare fealty to Israel and accept diminished status in an expanded Jewish state, whose sovereignty extends throughout the West Bank.

While Feiglin had campaigned in the last election on refusing to characterize his party as belonging to either the right or the left, after failing to cross the electoral threshold he said Zehut had learned its lesson and would no longer play down its right-wing credentials.

The final slates must be presented to the Central Elections Committee by August 1.

Jacob Magid contributed to this report.

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