Israeli Right-wing Parties Announce Last-minute Merger; Bennett Vetoes Kahanists

Hayamin Hehadash and National Union join forces, hoping to lure Habayit Hayehudi into their alliance on the condition that it breaks away from Kahanist party

Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked speak at a press conference in Tel Aviv, September 5, 2019.
Moti Milrod

The Israeli right-wing parties Hayamin Hehadash and National Union announced Tuesday that they would run on a joint slate in the March 2 election, breaking an impasse in talks between the parties a day before the final deadline to register party slates.

The agreement between the leaders of the right-wing Hayamin Hehadash party, Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, and Bezalel Smotrich of the National Union leaves the door open for the right-wing Habayit Hayehudi party to join the slate as well.

However, Bennett has ruled out any partnership with the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit party, which has joined forces with Habayit Hayehudi on a joint slate of their own.

Otzma Yehudit issued a statement accusing Bennett and Smotrich of "abandoning religious Zionism."

On Monday, Israel's two mainstream left-wing parties, Labor-Gesher and Meretz, announced they would run together in the March 2 election.

Rafi Peretz, left, and Bezalel Smotrich at the Knesset, November 20, 2019.
Ohad Zwigenberg

The latest developments follow the breakdown of negotiations between Smotrich and the leader of Habayit Hayehudi, Rabbi Rafi Peretz, to formally merge their two parties into one. Early on Tuesday, the two parties accused one another of responsibility for the apparent failure of their merger plans.

Habayit Hayehudi claimed that the talks failed because Smotrich wanted to join forces with Hayamin Hehadash, which has now become a reality.

Speaking following the agreement to run with the National Union, Bennett, the defense minister, called it "a great day," in which "the ideological right and religious Zionism" have been brought together. "I call on my friend Rabbi Rafi Peretz to join us immediately in one united party for a victory of the national camp."

Shaked, the former justice minister, said the linkup with the National Union unites "all of the religious Zionist streams and the secular ideological right and will ensure the establishment of a stable and secure right-wing government."

For his part, Smotrich said: "In recent weeks, we have been doing everything to [exercise] genuine responsibility for a linkup that would bring … hope to religious Zionist and ideologically right-wing voters." He expressed the hope that Habayit Hayehudi would be quickly brought onto the joint slate.

As a condition of joining the new linkup between Bennett and Smotrich's parties, Bennett is demanding that Peretz drop the agreement that Peretz's party has to run on a joint slate with Itamar Ben-Gvir's far-right Otzma Yehudit party. Bennett is concerned that Ben-Gvir's presence on a broad right-wing slate would alienate voters and taint his own political career.

Habayit Hayehudi leader Peretz said in a statement to party members on Tuesday morning that he would “do whatever we can in the remaining hours” to form “the best party slate that religious Zionism can provide.”

Following the news of Smotrich's alliance with Bennett's party, Habayit Hayehudi issued a statement saying: "The real faces of Bezalel Smotrich and Naftali Bennett have been unmasked – destroying religious Zionism. … From the beginning, we called for unity in the ranks but they preferred splintering the [political] camp and inflicting harm on the entire right-wing camp.

"Habayit Hayehudi will continue forward and will announce our future steps shortly," the statement added.  

Earlier contacts

On Monday, Bennett and Shaked had announced that Hayamin Hehadash would run independently rather than forming a joint ticket with other right-wing parties.

Representatives of National Union and Habayit Hayehudi met on Monday afternoon at the home of Rabbi Haim Druckman, a leader of the religious Zionist movement, with the aim of finalizing details on an actual merger of the parties and the signing the agreement, according to the National Union, which accused Rabbi Peretz, of balking at signing, instead asking for additional negotiations. In practice, that meant that the deal was dead, the National Union said.

For its part, Habayit Hayehudi issued a statement early Tuesday saying: “There is a simple truth and that is that the National Union is acting irresponsibly toward the entire right-wing camp.” Habayit Hayehudi’s central committee had given Peretz the authority to pursue a merger that the central committees of the two parties would then approve, the statement added.

“There are no disparities and the deal can be concluded now. It is only an issue of wanting to,” Habayit Hayehudi said. “The National Union’s refusal reveals that it is not a union of the parties that interests it, but apparently a new offer from Hayamin Hahadash.”

The Kahanist party

If the National Union and Habayit Hayehudi had merged, it was reported on Monday that the agreement that was taking shape would have had Peretz in the No.1 slot on the slate, followed by Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, the leader of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party.

Shortly after Smotrich broke off talks with Habayit Hayehudi, with which his party had a draft agreement waiting to be signed, he met in Jerusalem with a close associate of Bennett, Tal Gan-Zvi. The two sat through the night, joined by other party representatives, and came to agreement on running on a joint slate. In practice the move is designed to force Rabbi Peretz's hand and coax him to bring Habayit Hayehudi in as well, but without Ben-Gvir's party.

Bennett had earlier considered pushing for a joint slate uniting all of the parties to the right of Likud, because he thought, if it resulted in him being the leader of a larger bloc following the March 2 election, it would boost his chances of remaining defense minister. But he opposed running with Ben-Gvir, who had been a follower of the extremist Rabbi Meir Kahane.