Netanyahu: Otzma Yehudit won't clear the electoral threshold

Seeking right-wing support, PM says votes for Otzma Yehudit will go to ‘trash’

Extremist party rejects Netanyahu’s call not to vote for it, says without it premier has no chance of forming a right-wing government

Itamar Ben Gvir of Otzma Yehudit at a party branch in Safed, northern Israel, on September 8, 2019 (David Cohen/Flash90)
Itamar Ben Gvir of Otzma Yehudit at a party branch in Safed, northern Israel, on September 8, 2019 (David Cohen/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday implored right-wing Israelis not to vote for the far-right Otzma Yehudit party, launching a bid to shore up support for his Likud party ahead of elections next week.

“After a thorough examination and lots of polls that we did, it is clear beyond any doubt that Otzma Yehudit won’t pass the minimum electoral threshold,” Netanyahu said in a campaign video. “Don’t throw your votes in the trash.”

Of all the polls commissioned by Likud, Netanyahu said only one showed Otzma Yehudit entering the Knesset.

Otzma Yehudit, whose leaders include disciples of the late extremist rabbi Meir Kahane, has been hovering around the 3.25 percent of the total vote needed to enter the Knesset in recent polls, a number of which have forecast it would pass.

Before elections in April, Netanyahu brokered an agreement to include Otzma Yehudit in the Union of Right-Wing Parties electoral alliance, arguing its votes would be “wasted” otherwise. The move was met with widespread condemnation and despite Likud’s backing for a resurrection of the alliance ahead of the September 17 vote, Otzma Yehudit rebuffed offers to again team up with other national religious parties and decided to run alone.

Michael Ben Ari, center, Itamar Ben Gvir, left, and Lehava chair Benzi Gopstein, all of the Otzma Yehudit party, at an event in Jerusalem marking the 27th anniversary of the death of Rabbi Meir Kahane, November 7, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Responding to Netanyahu, Otzma Yehudit said the prime minister’s call for Israelis not to vote for it showed Likud would seek a unity government with the centrist Blue and White party.

“There is no majority of 61 [seats] for the right-wing bloc without Otzma Yehudit and it turns out Likud prefers a unity government over a right-wing [and] ultra-Orthodox one,” the party said in a statement.

Otzma Yehudit said its entry to the Knesset was the only way Netanyahu could form a right-wing government, though even in polls where it was forecast to clear the minimum vote threshold, Likud and other right-wing factions would still fall short of a majority.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a speech in Ramat Gan on September 10, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Netanyahu’s call for Israelis not to cast their votes for Otzma Yehudit came after Likud debated internally about how to deal with the party, which was long considered beyond the pale in Israeli politics.

Despite the premier’s claim that only one poll commissioned by Likud showed Otzma Yehudit clearing the vote threshold, a senior official in the ruling Likud party on Thursday told Zman Yisrael, The Times of Israel group’s Hebrew site, that two of three separate polls it ordered in recent days had it entering the Knesset with four seats.

That was in addition to several recent surveys that had similar results, although the margin of error in all the polls was greater than the 3.25 percent threshold, making the situation difficult to accurately predict.

“We have to see how we will now deal with the issue,” said the official, who was with the prime minister on his trip to Russia.

The official also said that the chances of Otzma Yehudit’s Ben Gvir of being made a minister were “not realistic,” after he said would demand this from Netanyahu in exchange for his support.

Until recently the idea of the Otzma Yehudit joining a ruling coalition was not considered possible. The party is the successor of the Kahanist Kach party, which was banned for being racist. And indeed three of the party’s four leaders — Michael Ben-Ari, Baruch Marzel and Bentzi Gopstein — have been disqualified from standing in the election over their longstanding advocacy for racist policies and support for political violence.

The party has resisted intense pressure from Netanyahu to drop out of these elections. However, if it holds the balance of power in the next Knesset, Netanyahu could be tempted to bring it into a coalition.

The Otzma Yehudit platform envisages Israel’s sovereign borders extending from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River — throughout the West Bank territory that was captured by Israel in the 1967 war. “Enemies of Israel” within those expanded borders will be resettled elsewhere in the Arab world, it says. In addition, the platform calls for Jewish sovereignty to be “restored” to the Temple Mount — where Israel already claims sovereignty, but where Muslim authorities maintain religious control with Muslims allowing to pray there, but Jews cannot.

Shalom Yerushalmi contributed to this report.

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