Religious-Zionist politics in turmoil as parties turn on each other

Israeli politics has new Machiavellian twists in run up to Israel's 2020 elections

Rafi Peretz and Itamar Ben Gvir. (photo credit: MAARIV)
Rafi Peretz and Itamar Ben Gvir.
(photo credit: MAARIV)
Defections, betrayals, secret deals, the admission of the far Right, and prime ministerial interference are just some of the events that have characterized the chaos of religious-Zionist politics over the last 12 months.
As of this writing, the supposedly liberal right-wing outfit of Naftali Bennett’s New Right has united with the decidedly illiberal National Union; Bayit Yehudi is stuck with the extremist Kahanists of Otzma Yehudit; and Bayit Yehudi leader Rabbi Rafi Peretz has become an electoral liability and deeply unpopular within his own party.
What has happened?
For several months now, substantial parts of the Bayit Yehudi membership and central committee have become increasingly angry with Peretz for refusing to allow primary elections for leadership of the party and its electoral list.
Peretz has proved to be an electoral liability, a religious hard-liner, and a generally charisma-less leader of Bayit Yehudi compared to the dynamism and electoral attraction of Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, all of which has seen the party’s polling numbers plummet.
Because of all this, when negotiations began to reunite Bayit Yehudi with its longtime political partner, National Union, it looked increasingly likely that National Union leader Bezalel Smotrich would wrest the leadership of the joint list away from Peretz.
In a Machiavellian move, Peretz then did an end run around Smotrich to unite with the far-right Otzma Yehudit Party to outflank his National Union rival.
This move heaped pressure on Smotrich because he essentially had no place to go. Bennett was insisting that New Right was running independently as a liberal, right-wing party, and National Union had no hope of passing the electoral threshold by itself.
Enter Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Sometime earlier this week, Netanyahu got hold of internal party polling demonstrating that a joint list of Bayit Yehudi, National Union and Otzma would struggle to pass the 3.5% electoral threshold.
Panicking that the center-left bloc would almost certainly gain a majority and evict Netanyahu from Balfour Street if close to 140,000 right-wing votes got thrown in the dustbin, the prime minister pressured Bennett to bring in Smotrich, and then Bayit Yehudi and even Otzma.
While this was going on, Peretz and Smotrich were still in negotiations to form a united list, but Peretz seemingly reneged on a promise to allow internal primaries after a full party merger, which blew a hole in the proposed agreement.
Smotrich was now only too willing to accept Netanyahu’s proposed unity deal with New Right, since it would rescue him from political oblivion and turn the tables on Peretz.
Bennett subsequently folded in the face of Netanyahu’s pressure, which included threats to fire him from his long-coveted role as defense minister, and Peretz found himself out in the cold with the extremists of Otzma in a joint list, which will be extremely hard pressed to pass the electoral threshold.
Netanyahu then weighed in again Wednesday night with the preposterous idea that senior religious-Zionist authority Rabbi Haim Druckman, 87 years old and in poor health, should temporarily take over the leadership of Bayit Yehudi, so as to bring unity to the religious-Zionist political scene and save the prime minister from appearing in the Jerusalem District Court to face his corruption charges.
As it stands now, Bennett is resisting the demands to bring in Otzma to his joint electoral list and has invited only Bayit Yehudi, while Peretz is insisting that he will not abandon his radical partners and will join a united list only if the Kahanists can come, too.
Whatever happens by the deadline for submitting electoral lists to the Central Elections Committee Wednesday at midnight, the wounds of this latest election campaign will be deep and painful, and will not quickly be healed.