Gideon Sa’ar, the former Likud minister challenging Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from inside his own right-wing camp in the March 23 elections, said Saturday that he would not include Itamar Ben Gvir, a disciple of the late racist rabbi Meir Kahane, in any coalition he heads.
Netanyahu earlier in the week brokered a merger between Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit party and Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionism party that opinion polls suggest could see Ben Gvir win a seat in the next Knesset. The Otzma Yehudit leader is in third slot on the merged slate, which two polls Friday showed clearing the Knesset threshold and heading for 4-5 seats in the March 23 elections.
“Ben Gvir will not sit in my coalition,” Sa’ar said in a Channel 12 news interview. “This is a man who put up a picture in his living room of someone who murdered 29 people at prayer. Netanyahu has reached the point where that’s his way to muster a coalition — with extremists like Ben Gvir.”
Sa’ar, who heads the New Hope party, was referring to the fact that ahead of the March 2020 election, Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett vetoed Ben Gvir’s inclusion in his right-wing slate because, among other reasons, Ben Gvir had a portrait of Baruch Goldstein hanging in his living room. Goldstein in 1994 murdered 29 Muslim worshipers at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron. Ben Gvir reportedly took down the portrait in an unsuccessful attempt to mollify Bennett.
Were Smotrich to split away from Ben Gvir after the elections, Sa’ar said, New Hope would be prepared to bring Smotrich’s party into a coalition.
Otzma Yehudit is made up of followers of Kahane, an American-Israeli former MK whose Kach party was banned from the Knesset in the 1980s — the first instance of a party being banned for racism. Otzma Yehudit supports encouraging emigration of non-Jews from Israel and expelling Palestinians and Israeli Arabs who refuse to declare loyalty to Israel and to accept diminished status in an expanded Jewish state, whose sovereignty they wish to extend throughout the West Bank.
Ben Gvir’s former running mate, ex-MK Michael Ben-Ari, was disqualified from running for the Knesset over accusations of racism.
A similar merger two years ago was denounced by major US Jewish organizations AIPAC and the AJC. AIPAC called Otzma Yehudit a “racist and reprehensible party.”
Sa’ar also criticized Bennett, another right-wing party leader seeking to oust Netanyahu. Whereas Sa’ar has pledged not to sit in a government with Netanyahu, whom he charges is skewing policy in order to advance his personal and legal interests Bennett has not ruled out such a partnership. The prime minister is on trial for alleged corruption.
“Bennett still hasn’t committed to not sitting in a government with Netanyahu,” Sa’ar noted, stressing that were Bennett to rule out such an alliance, there would be no way for Netanyahu to retain power. “The only way for Netanyahu today to build a government is via Bennett; if Bennett would say what I’m saying [about refusing to sit with Netanyahu], Netanyahu would have no means to establish a government.”
Opinion polls published Thursday, after 39 parties on Wednesday submitted their lists of candidates for the elections, indicated that Bennett would hold the balance of power between the pro- and anti-Netanyahu parties.
Bennett and Sa’ar are fighting each other for the support of anti-Netanyahu voters on the right of the spectrum, in an election in which the long-serving prime minister is being challenged both from the center-left and the right.
Channel 12 reported that Bennet’s Yamina has prepared a campaign to target Sa’ar, asserting that he lacks the skills needed to run the country. The report, anonymously sourced, said this campaign would only be launched if Sa’ar was clearly drawing support away from Bennett.
The Thursday polls showed Likud at 29-30 seats; the centrist Yesh Atid at 17 seats; Sa’ar’s New Hope at 13-14, and Bennett’s Yamina getting 11 seats.