Kahanists Might Not Succeed in Israeli Election – but Their Voters Don't Care

'It only made me more determined to vote for them,' Otzma Yehudit supporter says after party ditched from short-lived alliance

Baruch Marzel, Jewish extremist barred from running in election, with supporters, June 2019
David Bachar

Itamar Ben-Gvir’s statement that he intends to run for the Knesset alone, again, on the Otzma Yehudit ticket, found his voters at least as enraged and hurt as he was.

According to assessments by political figures, Ben-Gvir is worth at least a few tens of thousands of votes, but while it’s clear to everyone that it would be impossible for him to cross the voter threshold, conversations with some of his voters clearly show that they don’t care.

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“It only made me more determined to vote for them,” said one supporter from Kiryat Malachi, Eitan Becker. “It’s clear to me that there’s a good chance we’ll burn votes here and I know it would be a miracle for us to get into the Knesset. But more important to me than Otzma Yehudit getting into the Knesset, I’d be very happy if Hayamin Hehadash or whatever they call them today, would fail. [Right-wing leaders Naftali] Bennett, [Bezalel] Smotrich and [Rafi] Peretz proved that they don’t care about anybody but themselves,” he said. An analysis of the Otzma Yehudit voters by the heads of the strategy and polling company Direct Polls, Shlomo Filber and Tzuriel Sharon, revealed that the hard core of the party’s supporters amounts to between 15,000 and 20,000 voters, and there are 30,000 more defined as “undecided.”

While the so-called hilltop youth and former Kach activists are considered a minority of the party’s supporters, the polling company has identified three main circles of voters.

The first circle includes nationalist ultra-Orthodox residents of settlements in their 30s and 40s, most of whom voted for Moshe Feiglin in the April elections. The analysis shows an anti-establishment group that considers a vote for Feiglin or Ben-Gvir as defiance against the system.

The second circle includes Jerusalemites, some of whom live in the Mahane Yehuda market area and others on the fringes of ultra-Orthodox society, members of the Breslau and Chabad Hasidic movements and other religious groups.

Jewish Supremacist Bentzi Gopstein with supporters, April 2019
David Bachar

The third circle are residents of outlying regions, from cities that are actually Likud bastions, who consider treatment of the Arab population as a main problem that the government should put at the top of its agenda.

But while the hard core of the party will follow Ben-Gvir anywhere, Filber estimates that as many as 30,000 other voters could peel away. “Mainly a group of Feiglin supporters who belittle the religious Zionists,” he explains. “We believe that Netanyahu could easily siphon off one Knesset seat from this group because their default is Likud. These are people, some of whom joined Likud when Feiglin was in the party,” Filber adds.

In the last election, Otzma Yehudit received 83,309 votes, most of them from big cities where they received a few thousand votes. In Jerusalem the number was larger, about 9,000 votes, but still far from crossing the voter threshold. The party had modest success in the settlements, first and foremost Yitzhar, where 60 percent of the residents voted for Ben-Gvir, but that amounted to only 311 votes. Even in Hebron, where Ben-Gvir lives, his was not the leading party and he only managed to garner 86 votes, coming in second after Yamina, then led by Ayelet Shaked.

In the April 2019 elections, Otzma Yehudit ran on a joint ticket with Habayit Hayehudi and National Union, and the combined party managed to pass the voter threshold, but Ben-Gvir himself still remained outside the Knesset. In the elections in 2015, the party ran jointly with Yahad, headed by ex-Shas leader Eli Yishai, when a representative of Otzma Yehudit, Baruch Marzel, was fourth on the roster. The party won 125,000 votes, not enough to get into the Knesset.

In the 2013 election, Otzma Yehudit ran independently under the name Otzma Leisrael, and won 66,775 votes, also falling short of the electoral threshold. In 2009, the party ran together with National Union and managed for the first time since Kach founder Meir Kahane to put a representative of the racist movement into the Knesset – Michael Ben-Ari.

In the 2006 elections, the party ran alone, headed by Baruch Marzel under the name Eretz Yisrael Shelanu and received 25,000 votes. In the 2003 election, Kahane’s representatives ran on the Herut roster, which was then led by former MK Michael Kleiner. But the party only received 36,000 votes.

Evyatar Apelkar of Yitzhar, like Becker, is even more determined to vote for Ben-Gvir since he was left out of the joint right-wing ticket. “The truth is that I’m surprised at him, that he got caught in [Habayit Hayehudi chairman] Rafi Peretz’s trap,” he says. “But I’ll vote for him and I don’t care if he passes the voter threshold or not. After the expulsion from Gush Katif I decided that I don’t respect that place called the Knesset. I’ll only vote for people of truth like Itamar.

“The warning signs about Peretz should have been seen,” Apelkar continued, “when he embraced the soldiers that came to expel him from Gush Katif. There is a perception in religious Zionism that you always have to embrace the state, even when it commits big crimes and Gush Katif was my watershed with Peretz. Ben-Gvir believed in him and he didn’t think someone of Peretz’s stature, an educator and [former] IDF chief rabbi, would cheat him. What he’s doing is blasphemy.”

Apelkar says proudly that he named his son after Kahane and that Ben-Ari was the godfather. “People told Ben-Gvir to prepare himself, that Peretz would go against him. Unfortunately, that’s what happened but we’ll continue to vote only for people of truth.”

But it seems Otzma Yehudit voters feel cheated not only because of Peretz’s move against the head of their party, but also against them. The mainstream religious Zionist right wing “always saw us as a fake right wing, second-rate right wing,” says Elad Gershi, an Otzma Yehudit voter from Ashkelon.

“They called us derogatory names like ‘Kahanists,’ I’m for the greater Land of Israel. Call me what you want, but I didn’t expect behavior like that from a man like Rafi Peretz. But look, the truth came out. Anybody who says our votes will burn is wrong because there’s no difference if Netanyahu gets 55 or 57 seats, there still won’t be a right-wing government,” Gershi concludes.