Rafi Peretz (United Right List), Benny Gantz (Blue & White Party), Benjamin Netanyahu (Likud Party)(l. to r.) (Image credit: Kobi Gideon/Government Press Office of Israel)
The last minute unity deal Wednesday between the religious nationalist parties for a joint run in the April Knesset elections followed weeks of tense drama and negotiations and highlighted a fundamental strategy divide among the religious Zionist public.
The snubbing and disdain openly heaped on the only ideological nationalist party that has consistently not sacrificed its ideals for a seat in the government — Otzma Yehudit — revealed this deep divide. Otzma Yehudit is the largest of the three religious Zionist parties according to polls, consistently receiving between three and four mandates —roughly equivalent to the seats polled for both National Union and Jewish Home combined. However, without a joint run of the three, they all risked falling below the 3.25% electoral threshold, leaving Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu without a chance of forming a coalition to oppose the joint list led by rising leftist-“centrist” former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz.
Despite Otzma Yehudit’s size and the massive public demand for unity to prevent a leftist government, the party has been treated with blatant contempt. In a clear message of scorn, Otzma Yehudit was offered and eventually agreed to accept the fifth and eighth spots on the United Right List, a technical bloc political agreement which allows parties to run together and split up after elections. Netanyahu had to literally bribe Jewish Home with two ministerial posts and a spot on the Likud list so that it would deign to sit in the technical bloc with the party. Even after the agreement with Otzma Yehudit, a Jewish Home candidate quit the party in protest.
This scorn has been the tone throughout negotiations. Otzma Yehudit member Attorney Itamar Ben-Gvir revealed that National Union signed an agreement with him promising the fourth and seventh spots to the party in a joint list, before National Union's new chair Bezalel Smotrich reneged on the signed document and sealed a separate agreement with Jewish Home's new chair Rabbi Rafi Peretz the following day. Until Netanyahu’s last minute bribe, National Union and Jewish Home also repeatedly ignored Netanyahu's calls to include Otzma Yehudit.
The antagonism got personal, with Jewish Home and National Union members speaking derogatorily of Otzma Yehudit as being anti-establishment and not “respectable” enough, without providing any evidence for the jab and despite the fact that the parties were only discussing a joint arrangement ending after elections.
So what can explain such backlash against Otzma Yehudit?
While those attacking the party insinuate that its hard-line call to defend Jewish interests from the hostile Arab population somehow puts it beyond the pale, the eventual agreement — supported by the overwhelming majority of the religious Zionist public — indicates the core of the tension lies in the radically different strategic approach separating Otzma Yehudit from the other parties. Jewish Home and National Union define themselves as “pragmatic,” meaning they place greatest emphasis on obtaining “influence” in the government and advancing their own position. This is meant to enable them to direct national affairs from within — even if it means making concessions on their professed principles in the process.
In contrast, Otzma Yehudit aims for a national platform in the Knesset from which it can sound an ideological voice, thereby changing the public discourse and altering future policy realities. As an example from the opposite end of the political spectrum, the party’s leaders cite the radical leftist Meretz party's role in making “land for peace” and “the two-state solution” ingrained paradigms that all parties now abide by in one form or another. Meretz achieved this by sounding repeated messages as a small ideological party in the Knesset for dozens of years, despite not being a significant coalition player.
The tension between the religious parties stems from the more “mainstream” religious Zionist parties fear of guilt by association with the hard-line Otzma Yehudit party — fear that they will be labelled “extremist” and as a result, not be able to wield “influence.”
But when influence is the goal, the focus on one's own position inevitably becomes an end in itself. Parties justify betraying their constituents’ will in order to keep improving their power standing. Eventually, even when the opportunity to use their accumulated influence materializes, they hesitate to seize it for fear of losing power and popularity.
For example, National Union and Jewish Home — elected by virtue of their “right-wing” stance — have sat in the past two Likud coalition governments even as they released terrorists, refused to crush Arab terrorism, and froze Jewish construction while destroying towns in Judea, Samaria, and “East” Jerusalem. Former Jewish Home chair Naftali Bennett most recently displayed his inability to take a stand on principles when he blatantly and very publicly backed down on his ultimatum to quit the government over its weak Gaza policy, evidently preferring to “influence” from within.
Likewise former Likud MK and current Zehut chair Moshe Feiglin was part of a governing Likud party that released terrorists and froze construction, and did not leave until being voted out in primaries. Former Likud MK Oren Hazan is following a near identical path, now heading the Tzomet party after a poor showing in primaries.
There are countless other examples clearly illustrating how sacrificing principles for “influence” is a hoax — or worse, an intentional clever deception conning voters into supporting candidates who do not intend to use the power they so avidly pursue in accordance with the will and interests of the public.
An "influence strategy" continually justifies concessions on principles as a result of external pressures, most commonly from the United States. This pressure is presented as temporary; adherents of this approach promise their party will be able to act according to its true principles after the pressure passes. Yet the excuse remains regardless of the external conditions, as proven by Israel maintaining the same basic policies during both former U.S. President Barack Obama's hostile term and the current unprecedented pro-Israel stance of U.S. President Donald Trump. Pressure will always serve as a convenient excuse not to act — thereby making parties that succumb to it irrelevant, as they permanently negate their own action.
Clearly, “pragmatic” parties will never lead.
There will always be “reasonable concessions,” pressures justifying “temporary” betrayals, and arguments for politicians to put their personal interests ahead of their voters. These politicians are not bold enough to take a stand and risk their popularity, which could cause them to lose their coveted "influence.” They end up enacting the policy of the left, which is the path of least resistance in the current public discourse.
Only those with an unbending ideology can set the national agenda. For years that has been Meretz. It is time that the nationalist religious public fight back with the strategy that has proven most effective — taking a stand and not budging.
With the unity deal and a subsequent poll giving the United Right joint list eight seats, Otzma Yehudit could have two representatives in the Knesset — both its chair former MK Dr. Michael Ben-Ari and Attorney Ben-Gvir. This is the party’s opportunity to provide the ideological right-wing voice to counterbalance the leftist stranglehold on public discourse in recent decades. Furthermore, being pressed by Gantz’s new party overtaking Likud in polls, Netanyahu could find himself forced to concede to Otzma Yehudit's ideological demands in order to get their support in building a coalition.
Regardless of how the elections play out, one thing is certain: we have seen the failure of the “pragmatic” approach for far too long. It has qualitatively erased any difference between the leftist and nationalist camps by adopting radical self-defeating policies and sacrificing ideals on the altar of political “influence.”
Now is the time to change the tune — and that can only happen when there is a platform for those in the nationalist religious camp who are not afraid to say what they truly think and to act accordingly, settling for nothing less than the truth.