‘I can’t take the risk’: Netanyahu makes public call for far-right parties to unite

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday issued a public call for a unity deal between Itamar Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit party and Betzalel Smotrich’s National Religious Party.

Netanyahu’s pointed statement was welcomed by Smotrich, who said the two were still working on a deal, but ignored by Ben Gvir, who accused his former political partner of dragging his feet.

Smotrich and Ben Gvir, who both chair right-wing parties, ran on a split ticket in the 2021 elections. But their negotiations to resubmit a joint voters list in the November elections fell apart last week, Ben Gvir accusing Smotrich of negotiating in “bad faith” and refusing to make any concessions.

In a video message posted to social media, Netanyahu pleaded with Smotrich and Ben Gvir to resurrect their alliance – echoing similar efforts he made in 2019 and 2021.

“For all of us, there is one mission: to establish a strong and stable national government for the next four years. But before we can do that, we need one thing: to unite forces and not disperse them,” said the leader of the opposition.

“Therefore, I call on the Religious Zionist Party and Otzma Yehudit to stand together in the elections. We can’t take the risk. Only running together will ensure that these parties will cross the electoral threshold with certainty,” he added.

Far-right MK Itamar Ben Gvir speaks during a press conference in Jerusalem on July 11, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Likud leader fears that if the parties split, one of them could fall below the 3.25% electoral threshold, potentially wasting votes that would otherwise go to the right-wing bloc loyal to Netanyahu.

“Only running together will guarantee a government without the Joint (Arab) List,” Netanyahu said, referring to the coalition of majority Arab parties.

In response, Smotrich tweeted that he “accepts” Netanyahu’s request, asking Ben Gvir to “sit down tomorrow with the real purpose of advancing a common race for a right-wing election victory.”

Ben Gvir took a less optimistic tone, complaining that he had spent a month and a half “chasing” Smotrich in a bid to reach a unity deal. Ben Gvir also accused Smotrich of avoiding him by canceling meetings and favoring an alliance with former Yamina MK Amichai Chikli. “We tried every way until we understood there was no partner,” Ben Gvir said.

Ben Gvir was referring to a Kan report on Tuesday claiming Smotrich is in talks to run alongside Chikli, the renegade lawmaker who played a key role in bringing down Naftali Bennett’s government in June.

The report suggests there could be an announcement in the coming days, with Chikli set to receive three seats in Religious Zionism’s top 10.

MK Amichai Chikli during the Knesset Committee hearing on Yamina’s request to declare him a “defector” from the party, April 25, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Otzma Yehudit ran in last year’s elections with the Religious Zionist party, in a deal brokered by Netanyahu, who agreed to nominate Religious Zionist candidate Ofir Sofer as 28th in Likud as part of the agreement.

The combined list – which also included the far-right Noam party – received six seats in the previous Knesset. Recent polls have predicted the alliance could win 9-11 seats in the November 1 election. Noam is not expected to join Smotrich in this year’s vote.

In 2019, Netanyahu brokered a similar deal between Smotrich and Rafi Peretz to join Ben Gvir in forming the short-lived Union of Right-Wing Parties, a predecessor of the Religious Zionism party.

The move sparked an outpouring of backlash, with widespread accusations against Netanyahu that he was importing right-wing extremists into the Knesset. Critics of the move have poured in, even from traditional allies such as the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, which rarely criticizes Israeli politicians.

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