Smotrich says he won’t join Jewish Home-Otzma Yehudit merger ‘at any cost’

Threatening independent run, National Union chairman proposes reshuffling joint slate

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

National Union chairman Bezalel Smotrich makes a video statement on December 31, 2019. (Screen capture/National Union)
National Union chairman Bezalel Smotrich makes a video statement on December 31, 2019. (Screen capture/National Union)

National Union chairman Bezalel Smotrich threatened to stage an independent run in the upcoming election, saying Tuesday that he would not be part of the joint right-wing slate formed by fellow national religious parties Jewish Home and Otzma Yehudit “at any cost.”

Breaking the silence that he has maintained since Jewish Home chairman Rafi Peretz and far-right Otzma Yehudit party head Itamar Ben-Gvir agreed to a join forces on December 20, Smotrich said in a video statement, “When it comes to the fate of the nation, I cannot at any cost join a list where there is doubt whether it will even pass the electoral threshold.”

For the past decade, Jewish Home and National Union have run together on a joint slate.

Peretz surprised many pundits by merging with Otzma Yehudit earlier this month. Peretz’s and Ben Gvir’s parties first ran together in April, though the Jewish Home chairman initially opposed the merger, concerned the slate of self-described disciples of the extremist rabbi Meir Kahane would scare away more moderate voters. They ran separately in September, at which time Otzma Yehudit failed to pass the electoral threshold.

Jewish Home leader Rafi Peretz, right, with Itamar Ben Gvir, left, of the extremist Otzma Yehudit party on Friday, December 20, 2019. (Courtesy)

The announcement left Smotrich with his options limited. The Jewish Home-Otzma Yehudit agreement saved the 2, 5, and 8 slots for National Union candidates, but polls suggest Smotrich is the most popular among the three party leaders and agreeing to join Peretz would mean again serving as his deputy. Moreover, the three parties already ran together in April as the Union of Right Wing Parties and only managed to win five Knesset seats.

Smotrich, who is also transportation minister, argued that national religious lawmakers are operating without a mandate from their public. Accordingly, he suggested two proposals that, he said, would help restore the public’s trust.

Smotrich in his Tuesday statement recognized that it was too late to hold open primaries, as the deadline for parties to submit their final slates for the upcoming election is just two weeks away. Instead, he proposed that a survey be conducted, with national religious voters ranking their preferred candidates in order for a united roster to be cobbled together.

Alternatively, he proposed a merger of the National Union and Jewish Home central committees, which would then be tasked with determining the makeup of the united party’s slate.

“I’m not asking for the first spot, nor the second or third. I’m not even asking for a realistic spot [on the united slate],” Smotrich claimed. “All I ask for and demand is that we receive a mandate from the public.

“It’s not too late to have a democratic process that will renew the faith of the religious Zionist community in its party,” he added.

(From L-R) URWP MK Idit Silman, Rafi Peretz, Bezalel Smotrich and Moti Yogev during a visit in south Tel Aviv on March 25, 2019. (Avi Dishi/Flash90)

In the meantime, Jewish Home and Otzma Yehudit have been preparing for a run without the National Union, despite Smotrich and Peretz’s parties’ virtually identical views on issues across the board.

Jewish Home-Otzma Yehudit on Tuesday introduced a new logo and name for their slate, re-branding themselves as the “United Jewish Home.”

Still, Peretz agreed to bring the Otzma Yehudit merger to the Jewish Home central committee for its approval, and a vote will be held on the matter on January 13. A senior official in the party told The Times of Israel last week that the measure is  expected to pass, and that opposition to the deal with Otzma Yehudit was voiced by a “vocal minority” and was largely over “the fact that Peretz did not consult with anyone.”

A Channel 12 survey on Monday predicted that the Jewish Home-Otzma Yehudit alliance — sans Smotrich’s National Union — would just clear the electoral threshold and get four seats in parliament.

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