(June 26, 2019 / JNS) The extreme right-wing Otzma Yehudit Party announced on Tuesday that it was dissolving its partnership with the Jewish Home Party, potentially threatening the latter’s ability to cross the voting threshold. If that were to happen, the right could end up with fewer seats in the 22nd Knesset than it had in the 21st.
Jewish Home Knesset member Motti Yogev told JNS his party was dedicated to preventing such an outcome. “We in the Jewish Home are dedicated to the nation of Israel, the Torah of Israel, the land of Israel, and the State of Israel and commit ourselves to try to foster unity with any party we can in the religious Zionist camp,” he said.
Jewish Home (formerly the National Religious Party) was the mothership of the national religious camp for decades. Since 2013, the party was headed by Naftali Bennett, who helped Jewish Home win 12 seats in 2013 and eight in 2015. But he and his No. 2 in the party—the very popular Ayelet Shaked—broke away to form a new party, the New Right, ahead of the April 9 elections.
That left Jewish Home at risk of failing to cross the 3.25 percent electoral threshold required to enter the Knesset, equivalent to about four Knesset mandates. To prevent his potential coalition from losing those seats, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu brokered a partnership which brought the extreme right-wing Otzma Yehudit Party into the Jewish Home list, together with the National Union Party. The new joint list was called the United Right Party.
Otzma, which follows the ideological teachings of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, has 70,000 supporters—enough for approximately two Knesset seats but not enough to pass the electoral threshold on its own.
The move was criticized throughout the international media, where it was described as the prime minister bringing racist ultra-nationalists into mainstream Israeli politics. It led to significant criticism in Israel by opponents of the prime minister. Otzma’s controversial positions include encouraging the emigration of non-Jews from Israel and expelling Palestinians and Arab Israelis who refuse to declare loyalty to Israel.
Yet despite the criticism, the partnership proved successful with United Right winning five seats and entering Knesset.
Bennett and Shaked and their New Right Party did not fare as well at the polls. They fell just 1,400 votes short of the threshold, and the nearly four mandates right-wing voters gave them went to waste. The lost votes by a natural coalition partner ultimately cost Netanyahu the ability to form a right-wing government. After failing to form a ruling coalition by just one seat, and with no other obvious candidate waiting to form a coalition, the Knesset voted to disperse and go to a second election in September.
Now, the controversial partnership between Jewish Home and Otzma has unraveled. Otzma’s top Knesset candidate, Itamar Ben-Gvir, told JNS that “we believe that one’s word is one’s word. There was an agreement that led to a successful election result, but from the beginning we sensed that the Jewish Home did not plan on adhering to the agreement.”
Otzma’s complaint relates to a condition set ahead of the April elections that if any United Right Knesset members were to become ministers after the election, they would resign their Knesset seats to allow Otzma’s representative, who was lower down on the list, to become a Knesset member.
Two Jewish Home MKs—Peretz and National Union leader Bezalel Smotrich—have been appointed ministers in the interim government but have not given any indication they intend to resign. Jewish Home chairman Peretz has reportedly even been dodging all phone calls from Otzma representatives, who sent him a letter on Tuesday stating that “in recent months we have not been treated fairly, and your behavior and that of others in Jewish Home has been that of using us and casting us aside.”
All options on the table
Not having Otzma Yehudit as part of its election list places Jewish Home at risk of not passing the electoral threshold. It means that as of now there are four separate right-wing parties–Jewish Home, Otzma Yehudit, New Right and Zehut—each of which could win a few mandates with none actually entering the Knesset. Add wild card Shaked and her supporters into the mix, and everything is up in the air.
The Otzma letter states clearly that “we are trying to form other unions that will strengthen the right in the coming elections.” Ben-Gvir told JNS that his party “can win 100,000 votes” with its “clear and uncompromising ideology.”
As an example, he explained that Israelis know that Otzma is the only party that will actually push for the strongest of responses to missile fire from Gaza, that will bring that missile fire to an end. “They want this ideology in the Knesset,” he said.
Ben-Gvir told JNS that all options are on the table, including a return to the Jewish Home list if all agreements are kept. But one way or another, he declared, “Otzma will be in the next Knesset.”
Bennett and Shaked—who essentially divided the right-wing camp that then necessitated the merger with the more extreme Otzma—have now gone their separate ways as well.
Bennett, who has been unveiling a series of policy initiatives and says he will not begin official partnership negotiations until July 15, has been exploring ways to unite with Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut Party, which also failed to cross the threshold in the April election, after receiving votes that would have been equivalent to approximately two mandates.
Shaked has not yet announced her plans, yet she is reportedly considering a return to Jewish Home, trying to secure a spot in the Likud or perhaps creating her own party. Polls indicate that Shaked, who is secular, may be the most popular figure within the religious Zionist community. She is coming off of a successful tenure as justice minister, in which she began a major overhaul of the country’s strongly left-leaning courts. Voters see her as a powerhouse capable of moving the right-wing agenda forward.
Current Jewish Home chairman MK Rafi Peretz has already made it clear that he is willing to give Shaked the second slot on his party’s list. Were he to offer Shaked the top spot and the leadership of the Jewish Home, that might be enough to sway Shaked to return to her former political home. As things stand, such a return is by no means certain.
Will the Jewish Home give in to Otzma’s demands and bring them back into their list? If that doesn’t happen, does the fact that the extreme right is no longer part of the Jewish Home open the door for the more moderate Bennett and Shaked to return to their former party, or will they be successful in creating any other partnerships? Will Otzma Yehudit find other partners to help them enter the Knesset?
At the moment, there are more questions than answers on the Israeli right. If the parties fail to form meaningful partnerships that combine forces to pass the electoral threshold, the right is at risk of seeing seven or more mandates go to waste, thereby preventing Netanyahu from being able to form a right-wing, nationalist government.