Religious Zionist Party chairman Bezalel Smotrich and Otzma Yehudit chairman Itamar Ben-Gvir are close to signing a deal to merge their two parties after achieving a breakthrough in negotiations, the sides said on Monday evening.
“In recent days we have held intense negotiations initiated by Religious Zionist chair Bezalel Smotrich, which included a number of meetings between Smotrich and Ben-Gvir in order to arrive quickly at an agreement to run together,” the Religious Zionist Party said in a statement after the offer was revealed on Channel 12.
“During the talks, Smotrich offered Ben-Gvir a far-reaching proposal for five spots in the top 10 [on the party list], and to Ben-Gvir’s request for joint leadership" of the party.
The party offered spots two, five, seven, nine and 10, on the condition that number seven is approved by Smotrich, and deemed the offer “generous.”
“Now is the time to sign and set out with full force in order to win 61 mandates and form a strong right-wing government that will fix the great damage caused by the government of the Left and the Arabs,” the party said.
Ben-Gvir was reportedly surprised by the offer and first heard of it from the media. He agreed to it, writing on Twitter on Monday evening, “For [the sake of] the victory of the Right – I call on Bezalel, let’s sign tonight.
“I have no doubt that MK Smotrich will not oppose Otzma Yehudit’s candidate for the seventh spot who is a man of principles, traditional and from the periphery,” he added in a statement.
The man Ben-Gvir referred to is reportedly 35-year-old Almog Cohen from Beersheba. Cohen is head of the “Negev Rescue Committee,” which purports to “assist the citizens of the Negev in the war against the incessantly growing crime in the Bedouin sector and in the realm of local crime.” The committee in December formed an independent armed police unit called “Sayeret Barel,” which cooperates with the Beersheba Municipality but has not been endorsed by the Israel Police.
Smotrich countered on Tuesday night and said he wanted former deputy chief of the Police Investigations Unit Moshe Saada as number seven on the list.
Saada recently accused former state attorney Shai Nitzan and former Israel Police commissioner Roni Alsheich of covering up police misconduct in order not to harm the criminal investigations of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“Saada is the flag bearer in the struggle for honest and principled rule of law, and serves as a mouthpiece for hundreds of thousands of secular, religious and haredi [people],” Smotrich said.
Ben-Gvir refused the offer, arguing on Kol Barama radio that Saada is not an “Otzma Yehudit” person, and if Smotrich wants him, he should get a different spot on the list.
The terms of the deal raised mixed feelings among Religious Zionist MKs and other groups in the religious-Zionist camp.
MK Michal Woldiger wrote on Twitter, “The unity with Ben-Gvir is important but appropriate representation should be given to all shades of the sector. The central, classic Religious Zionist should not be pushed to the end of the list.”
The joint Religious Zionist list is averaging 10 seats in the polls. If the deal goes through, Smotrich will receive the number-one spot. The rest of his faction will thus receive spots three, four, six and eight, meaning Woldiger would need to finish at least fourth in its August 23 primary in order to return to the Knesset.
"The unity with Ben Gvir is important but appropriate representation should be given to all shades of the sector."Michal Woldiger
The Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home) Party also weighed in on what it called a merger of the “haredi leumi” [national haredi] parties:
“Tonight, it has become clear that Ben-Gvir has been officially crowned as the leader of the Religious Zionist Party. Religious Zionism needs to decide what direction it is headed in. The Habayit Hayehudi-Mafdal Party promises to continue in the path of religious Zionism that has continued for over 100 years,” the party said in a statement.
If the deal goes through, it will be a success for Ben-Gvir, who in the previous election only received the number three and 10 spots, the latter of which did not enter the Knesset after the party won only six seats.
Ben-Gvir’s popularity has grown over the past year. In a recent poll, he won seven seats versus only four for Smotrich if they ran separately. In a different poll, the joint party under Ben-Gvir won 13 seats, versus Smotrich’s 10.
The two have been in negotiations for weeks, and displayed friction in public.
In an interview on Channel 12 on January 21, Smotrich promised that he and Ben-Gvir were “together and would continue together,” but later said, “Itamar has thrown away votes more than once or twice. We are in [political] chaos also because of him.”
Ben-Gvir responded on Twitter, “Bezalel, my dear, this is how you do unity?”
On Channel 12, he said, “Alone, I can bring seven mandates. In all of the polls if I lead the list, it will be larger. I am willing to give up on this, but on the party’s character I cannot give up.”
The Israel Police said in response to a Jerusalem Post query regarding its position on Sayeret Barel: “The Israel Police announced that it would not take part in the initiative after learning that a fundraising effort is being carried out in violation of the National Service Law. We emphasize that the Israel Police welcomes citizens who are interested in volunteering, as long as it is within the framework of the police’s orders and protocols.”