URWP head proposes technical bloc with UTJ, Shas for coalition talks and beyond

Rafi Peretz reaches out to ultra-Orthodox, proposing they join forces to advance issues of religion and state, then stick together as 20-strong bloc in Knesset too

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

Rafi Peretz addresses supporters at the URWP election results party in Kfar Maccabiah on April 9, 2019. (Nachshon Pillipson)
Rafi Peretz addresses supporters at the URWP election results party in Kfar Maccabiah on April 9, 2019. (Nachshon Pillipson)

Union of Right-Wing Parties leader Rafi Peretz reached out to the chairmen of the two ultra-Orthodox parties Thursday evening, proposing that they form a technical bloc in order to arrive at next week’s coalition negotiations with more influence, particularly on issues of religion and state on which the three parties largely agree. Peretz’s idea is for the three parties, which will hold a combined 20 seats in the next Knesset, to then work together in parliament as well.

The move, confirmed to The Times of Israel by a URWP spokesman, is meant to serve as a counter-measure to the increased leverage Yisrael Beytenu chair Avigdor Liberman is expected to enjoy during the talks given his party’s size of five seats in an expected right-wing coalition of 65.

Liberman, whose base of supporters is largely made up of secular immigrants from the former Soviet Union, campaigned on opposing “religious coercion,” and supports public transportation and allowing mini-markets to remain open on the Sabbath in addition to ending the Chief Rabbinate’s control over marriage and divorce and passing legislation regulating exemptions to military conscription for ultra-Orthodox students.

But it is exactly on these matters that Peretz told Shas head Aryeh Deri, whose party won eight seats, and United Torah Judaism leader Yaakov Litzman, whose party won seven seats, that they were all in agreement against Liberman, who has sparred intensely with the ultra-Orthodox parties on matters of religion and state.

Leader of the ‘Shas’ party Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, right, with leader of the United Torah Judaism party Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman during a joint party meeting at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, June 19, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Haredi parties have yet to respond to Peretz’s offer to form a 20-seat technical bloc, which he proposed would remain a united front on all other issues as well.

Peretz has said his party will demand the justice and education portfolios in coalition talks, likely a tough sell given the URWP’s relatively small number of seats.

The move toward a technical bloc comes against the backdrop of an escalating feud between Peretz and his party’s No. 2, Bezalel Smotrich, over how to relate to the New Right and extremist Otzma Yehudit parties.

The row began when it emerged Thursday morning that the late-counted votes of deployed soldiers were not enough to put the New Right party, led by the former heads of the religious-Zionist Jewish Home party Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, into the 21st Knesset.

Their former party, Jewish Home, is now part of the Union of Right-Wing Parties list, together with Smotrich’s National Union party and the extremist Otzma Yehudit, with the three together having received five seats in the new Knesset.

Jewish Home’s new leader, Peretz, in a move seen as a bid to punish Bennett and Shaked for abandoning Jewish Home in the run-up to this week’s election, issued a statement late Wednesday backing the Central Elections Committee and pointedly failing to call for a recount.

“In recent hours we’ve heard endless rumors about counting soldiers’ votes,” Peretz said. “I have complete faith in [Central Elections Committee chair] Justice Hanan Melcer, and we will wait calmly and responsibly for an official statement from the Elections Committee.”

In response, Smotrich openly defied Peretz, saying he backed the demand for a recount and hoped New Right would make it into the Knesset.

“We’re going to join Shaked and Bennett’s demand for a recount of soldiers’ votes,” he wrote on Twitter on Thursday.

“Something here has the very bad smell of an attempt to erase right-wing [parliamentary] seats, and we must not let that happen under any circumstances,” he said.

National Union MK Bezalel Smotrich at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on March 27, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The disagreement centered on two points: Jewish Home’s possible desire to see New Right evaporate in the hope that the liberal flank of the religious-Zionist community, many of whose members voted New Right, will return to Jewish Home in the next election; and the fact that New Right’s entry into the Knesset would have reshuffled the vote percentages for all parties, reducing URWP’s representation from five seats to four.

Later Thursday, amid reports that Jewish Home and National Union officials were denouncing each other’s leaders over the question of helping New Right into the Knesset, Smotrich seemed to double down, arguing New Right was a vital ally in the coming fight over a possible US-proposed peace plan.

“Let’s be clear,” he wrote, “a large right-wing bloc, with four more seats for the ideological right that will stand with us in keeping Netanyahu [from breaking leftward] when the Trump plan comes, is a thousand times more important than stupid revenge, and even more [important] than one more seat for us.”

He added: “I’m angry about what Bennett and Shaked did, but the State of Israel is more important than that! Anyone who says otherwise” — an apparent reference to Peretz — “is just a small, egotistical politician.”

But hours later, he changed tone, telling those believing there was a feud to “chill,” and that he and Peretz were in “100 percent agreement” that a recount was necessary.

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