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Smotrich rejects Ben Gvir criticism, urges him to run in Religious Zionism primary

‘We are shaping up to be the third-largest slate. Let us unite into one party,’ far-right party leader says, while noting ‘ideological difference’ with his rival/partner

Religious Zionism party leader Bezalel Smotrich, left, and Itamar Ben Gvir of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party at an election campaign tour at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on March 19, 2021(Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Religious Zionism party leader Bezalel Smotrich, left, and Itamar Ben Gvir of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party at an election campaign tour at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on March 19, 2021(Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich chided Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben Gvir on Tuesday for holding a press conference a day earlier calling for a merger between their parties rather than contacting him directly, and urged the far-right lawmaker to join his party’s primaries.

“[Ben Gvir] has my phone number; he doesn’t need to hold a press conference to talk to me. We met last week… He doesn’t need to run to the studios or to press conferences, he can pick up the phone,” Smotrich said during an interview with Kan public radio.

“We are shaping up to be the third-largest slate. Let us unite into one party,” Smotrich said, calling on Ben Gvir to join the Religious Zionism party’s primaries.

“In order for us to win we need to be bigger and have a diverse slate,” he continued. “I offered that we hold joint primaries and when we submit our slate we will register his representatives as part of Otzma Yehudit.”

“There’s an ideological difference between Ben Gvir and myself but we can be in the same party,” he declared.

Smotrich said that the most important question for him was whether Israel is a Jewish or a secular state. “That’s what matters; everything else is of secondary importance,” he concluded.

Speaking to reporters in Jerusalem Monday, Ben Gvir called on his ideological compatriots to rally around a united flag, as negotiations over party mergers meant to consolidate power ramped up ahead of the November 1 elections.

Religious Zionism party merged with Otzma Yehudit ahead of last year’s election and the far-right lawmakers have indicated their intention to do so again.

Head of the far-right Religious Zionism party MK Bezalel Smotrich and party member Itamar Ben Gvir with supporters at the party headquarters in Modi’in, on elections night, March 23, 2021. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)

But Ben Gvir is hoping to cement a partnership with Smotrich now, rather than after the Religious Zionism party holds its primaries, which he believes will give him a better chance of guaranteeing desired spots on the party slate; convincing party members to concede slots won in the primaries in favor of Otzma Yehudit members might prove more difficult.

Ben Gvir also suggested that independent research be conducted to determine how many slots each party should get in a united slate and their placement.

“He suggested we conduct in-depth research,” Smotrich said of Ben Gvir Tuesday. “I think that tens of thousands of our supporters are the best in-depth research we can get,” he said, adding: “The public expects us to run as a joined list.”

Recent polls have suggested that a merger between Religious Zionism and Otzma Yehudit would draw around 10 seats in the upcoming election. While the polls are often not accurate, they do influence politicians’ considerations.

Religious Zionism partnered with Otzma Yehudit faction along with the anti-LGBT party Noam to win six seats in 2021, in a move orchestrated at the time by Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu.

Ben Gvir and Otzma Yehudit are followers of the late racist rabbi Meir Kahane, a 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 Arab Israelis who refuse to declare loyalty to Israel and accept diminished status in an expanded Jewish state whose sovereignty extends throughout the West Bank.

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