Kahanist disciple says he’ll demand cabinet post; Likud official: Not realistic

With polls indicating extremist Otzma Yehudit may win 4 Knesset seats, its leader Itamar Ben Gvir says he will demand a cabinet appointment in return for backing Netanyahu

Itamar Ben-Gvir of the Otzma Yehudit party attends a conference in Jerusalem on September 2, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Itamar Ben-Gvir of the Otzma Yehudit party attends a conference in Jerusalem on September 2, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

SOCHI, Russia — A senior Likud party official said Thursday that the chances that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would appoint Itamar Ben Gvir as a minister in the next government were “not realistic.”

Ben Gvir, the head of the extremist Otzma Yehudit party, said earlier in the day that if his party makes it into the Knesset in next week’s elections, he would demand to be made a minister in exchange for his support.

Several recent polls have shown Otzma Yehudit crossing the electoral threshold for the first time and gaining four seats, and Likud has been debating internally how to deal with the party, headed by self-styled disciples of the late racist rabbi Meir Kahane, which was long considered beyond the pale in Israeli politics.

The senior Likud official, who was with the prime minister on his trip to Russia on Thursday, said that Netanayhu’s office had also ordered three separate polls in recent days to gauge whether Otzma Yehudit would make it into the Knesset.

Two of the three surveys forecast the party crossing the electoral threshold of 3.25 percent and entering the legislature with four seats, he said.

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.

Otzma Yehudit’s past support at the ballot box is hard to gauge, as it ran in joint slates with other parties in the two most recent elections and failed to place any of its candidates in the Knesset in either race.

“We have to see how we will now deal with the issue,” the official told Zman Yisrael, The Times of Israel group’s Hebrew site, adding that Ben Gvir’s chances of being made a minister were “not realistic.”

Until recently the idea of the party joining a ruling coalition was not considered possible. Otzma Yehudit 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.

Bentzi Gopstein (R) and Baruch Marzel seen during a press conference held by the Otzma Yehudit party in Jerusalem, August 26, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

But Netanyahu worked to bring them into the fold in April’s elections, engineering a deal for them to run together with other right-wing parties in order to prevent votes being wasted by parties that don’t cross the threshold. The move drew widespread condemnation.

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.

Likud and Blue and White have been mostly polling neck and neck. In a bid to ensure it edges out Blue and White, the ruling party has urged voters of right-wing parties to abandon their factions in favor of Likud, and returned to its controversial scare tactics targeting the Arab public, often warning that its rivals plan to form a government with the Arab parties. (Blue and White has ruled out any coalition with non-Zionist parties, and no Arab party has ever sat in a ruling coalition).

Yamina leader Ayelet Shaked last week urged Otzma Yehudit to withdraw from the race. “Otzma Yehudit won’t clear the electoral threshold and its two seats will move over to the left,” the former justice minister told Israel Radio.

Meir Kahane addresses a gathering at the Silver Springs Jewish Center in Maryland, Oct. 27, 1988 (AP Photo/Doug Mills)

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. Jewish sovereignty will be “restored” to the Temple Mount — where Israel already claims sovereignty, but where Muslim authorities maintain religious control, Muslims pray, and Jews do not.

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