Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Union of Right-Wing Parties chairman Rafi Peretz three times in the last 24 hours to urge him to refuse a merger with Ayelet Shaked, in which the newly coined sole chairwoman of the New Right party would be given the top spot on a joint electoral slate, a party source told The Times of Israel on Sunday.
The phone calls took place ahead of a scheduled meeting between Netanyahu and Peretz at the Prime Minister’s Office later Sunday evening, the source, an associate of Education Minister Peretz, said.
For his part, the premier claimed in a video statement shortly before the planned sit-down that, while he had received many requests to get involved in the negotiations between parties to the right of the Likud, “I will not intervene for the time being, but if necessary, I will intervene.”
Less than an hour after the statement, the PMO canceled the meeting with Peretz, a spokesman for the Education Minister said.
Additionally, the URWP source confirmed that the prime minister’s wife, Sara Netanyahu, met briefly with Peretz’s wife Michal on the sidelines of a wedding on Friday, and that the former urged the latter to convince her husband not to give Shaked the top spot in any merger agreement.
נתניהו עלה לדבר, איילת יצאה. הרבה כוחות יש לה כדי להגיע לפה pic.twitter.com/WmElnIQRAz
— Atara German (@ataragerman1) June 2, 2019
A spokesman for the Netanyahus confirmed that the two women had met, but claimed that reports regarding the content of their conversation were fake.
Last month, Channel 13 reported that the prime minister’s wife had vetoed efforts to bring Shaked into the Likud party, pulling her husband aside during a meeting with senior members of his coalition and telling him, “Ayelet Shaked won’t be in Likud. Period.”
On Saturday night, Shaked met with New Right chairman Naftali Bennett and the latter reportedly agreed to step aside from the top spot of the party that they jointly formed ahead of the April elections, which failed to cross the electoral threshold.
Shaked called a press conference in Ramat Gan for 8:10 p.m. where large New Right posters already hang, but instead of Bennett’s face and name on them, only the former justice minister is featured.
Shaked has been in negotiations with Peretz about joining the URWP, which she hopes to head instead of the education minister. The associate of the URWP chairman said that the former justice minister is likely to try to use her new position as sole New Right chair to further pressure Peretz to step aside and allow her to run the joint list.
In a Sunday tweet, Bennett also seemed to suggest that the New Right would seek a union with URWP or with some of its factions. “The country is more important than personal advancement,” he wrote. “And what the country needs now is a united right.”
Polls conducted in recent weeks have indicated that Shaked would bring in more votes than the more novice Peretz, who has caused political storms in recent weeks, calling the intermarriage rate among US Jewry a “second Holocaust” and saying that he had experience sending students to conversion therapy and believed the practice worked. He later walked back the comments and asserted that he utterly opposed the pseudo-scientific methods.
Peretz’s associate who spoke to The Times of Israel said that he believes Netanyahu opposes the possibility of a sole right-wing party consisting of both New Right and URWP with Shaked at the helm, as such a merger would threaten to take away seats from the Likud and prevent the premier from leading the largest party.
Netanyahu is instead reportedly seeking to keep the New Right and URWP separate, as they were during the April vote. During his meeting with Peretz later this evening, the prime minister is expected to pressure Peretz into bringing back the far-right Otzma Yehudit faction into the fold, according to the associate.
Netanyahu pushed for the same merger ahead of the last election, concerned that separate runs would risk wasting right wing votes if either party did not cross the electoral threshold. Peretz agreed to merge with the faction of self-described disciples of the extremist-rabbi Meir Kahane and the amalgam of the Jewish Home, National Union and Otzma Yehudit managed to earn five seats in the April vote.
Since the elections, however, relations between Peretz and Otzma Yehudit have soured, with the latter claiming that the URWP chairman has not kept his end of their agreement, which required him to resign, along with No. 2 Bezalel Smotrich, after the two were named ministers, in order to allow far-right candidate Itamar Ben-Gvir be named an MK. For his part, Peretz has asserted that, with the dissolving of the Knesset in May, there was no opportunity to pass new legislation allowing more than one minister in the same party to resign and give his place up to someone lower down the list.
The associate of Peretz who spoke with The Times of Israel speculated that Netanyahu may want to have the New Right run on its own in order to take votes away from Yisrael Beytenu. The two parties have pushed back in recent months against some of the more hard-line positions on issues of religion and state, but a New Right-URWP merger would likely shift focus away from the issue, leaving more space for Yisrael Beytenu to control the narrative. The party’s chairman, Avigdor Liberman, has been increasingly portrayed as a likely kingmaker in the upcoming elections, after refusing to join Netanyahu’s coalition, due to disagreements with the ultra-Orthodox parties.