'Night of the Kosher Knives': Inside the Israeli Right's Political Drama

The Jewish supremacist who attended the meeting ■ The American pollster who Netanyahu put on speaker phone ■ And the ace Bennett was hiding up his sleeve

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Nafatli Bennett and Rafi Peretz at a conference at the Ministry of Education, Jerusalem, September 15, 2019
Nafatli Bennett and Rafi Peretz at a conference at the Ministry of Education, Jerusalem, September 15, 2019Credit: Emil Salman
Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner

Many figures on the right of Israel's political map were embroiled in Wednesday night's drama, which one activist dubbed the "Night of the Kosher Knives."

The spectacle saw the parties to the right of Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud merge in an 11th-hour deal after Habayit Hayehudi turned its back on a deal with Kahanist party Otzma Yehudt.

That morning, Habayit Hayehudi leader - and current education minister - Rafi Peretz met with Otzma's leader Itamar Ben Gvir. Also in attendance was Jewish supremacist Benzi Gopstein, who recounted that Peretz vowed to "never violate an agreement." Peretz was headed to the Knesset to register the list.

Yamina leader Naftali Bennett at the unveiling of the party slates at the Knesset, Jerusalem, January 15, 2020Credit: Emil Salman

At a meeting with Naftali Bennett in Tel Aviv later in the day, Peretz was still hell-bent on running with the Kahanists. Bennett's strongly-worded Facebook post rejecting the followers of the racist rabbi – which was published during one of the breaks – cemented Peretz's decision.

"I will not violate the agreement," Peretz said.

"I will not run with a Kahanist," said Bennett.

And they departed to Jerusalem to file separate candidate lists.

But then came the urgent phone call from Netanyahu. The prime minister called to his office not just Bennett and Peretz, but two leading religious-Zionist rabbis, Rabbi Haim Drukman and Rabbi Eitan Eisenman. The rabbis were there for one purpose only: To pressure the parties into uniting.

Mirroring the lead-up to the April election, Netanyahu had wanted a broad, far-right merger. But faced with Bennett's determination, the prime minister urged Peretz to break off the deal with Ben Gvir. "You won't pass the threshold," he said. "It's dangerous for the right." At first, Peretz stood his ground – and the two rabbis backed him up. But the more Netanyahu spoke, the more they began to crack. Netanyahu put his American pollster on the phone, and the adviser presented polls showing how Habayit Hayehudi and Otzma Yehudit fail to make it into the Knesset. "It's lost, the numbers don't work," Netanyahu said, according to a person who was present.

Peretz, according to witnesses, began pondering the idea of breaking up his deal with Ben Gvir. "Will the rabbis be with me?" he asked another leading figure on the right. The two rabbis called into Netanyahu's office assured him that would be the case, but that was not enough. Peretz left the Prime Minister's Office and headed to the Knesset to register his slate – his own Habayit Hayehudi and Itamar Ben Gvir's Otzma Yehudit.

Habayit Hayehudi leader Rafi Peretz opens the school year in Shoham, Israel, November 18, 2019Credit: Ilan Assayag

Then, during the short drive in Jerusalem traffic, everything changed. Bennett had one last card up their sleeve: A defection. Over the past several days, Bennett's running mate Ayelet Shaked had been secretly negotiating with former MK Idit Silman about jumping ship at the last minute. Silman, seeing how Peretz parachuted journalist Sara Beck ahead of her on the slate, crossed the lines, bringing a number of activists with her.

Peretz started to see a new picture emerge, one in which he does not pass the electoral threshold (according to Netanyahu), but he's also left with only one woman in a realistic spot.

Peretz huddled in his office with his advisers. Ben Gvir, who quickly grasped the gravity of the situation, arrived at the scene.

Otzma Yehudit's Itamar Ben Gvir speaks to the press at the Knesset, January 15, 2020Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

"Rabbi Peretz, are you betraying me?" he asked. Peretz did not answer. His aides took Ben Gvir out of the room - and he watched as Bennett's people streamed inside to sign a new merger.

It was a bad week for Peretz. What began with an explosive, homophobic newspaper interview and continued with a violent altercation at a party event, now ended with the betrayal of a deal he himself fought for.

The promising helicopter pilot who sought to lead the right wing was forced to watch his own party take a fatal blow. The former chief military rabbi may also end up being the one to sign its death certificate.

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