Israel far-right party launches election campaign calling for expulsion of Palestinians

Far-right Israeli political party Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) has launched its election campaign by calling for the expulsion of Palestinians to their “countries of origin”.

Otzma Yehudit launched its campaign in Jerusalem yesterday ahead of Israel’s general election, which will be held on 17 September after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to form a ruling coalition following his re-election on 9 April.

Party head Michael Ben Ari told the audience that

we want to resettle our enemies in their countries […] we’ll give them a bottle of mineral water and even a sandwich. We’ll find them countries of origin they can go to.

Otzma Yehudit has a history of anti-Palestinian incitement, having previously called for the expulsion of Palestinians from both Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt). Its members are self-confessed followers of extremist rabbi Meir Kahane, whose Kach party was banned from the Knesset in the 1980s. Kahane’s ideology also inspired Baruch Goldstein’s 1994 massacre at Hebron’s Ibrahimi Mosque, which left 29 Muslim worshippers dead and scores wounded.

In March, Israel’s Central Elections Committee mulled barring Otzma Yehudit from contesting April’s election due to its anti-Palestinian rhetoric, with the Supreme Court eventually decidingonly to ban Ben Ari from the slate.

The party head slammed this decision at yesterday’s campaign launch, saying “they told us this [rhetoric] is racist […] they said they disqualified me for this”.

The party also announced that it would contest September’s election alone, confirming a split with the Union of Right Wing Parties (URWP) – a right-wing alliance of the Jewish Home and National Union parties – with which it had a working arrangement ahead of the April election.

This arrangement broke down after URWP leader Rafi Peretz and party number two Bezalel Smotrich refused to give up their Knesset seats to allow Otzma’s remaining candidate, Itamar Ben Gvir, to sit in the parliament as they had previously promised.

Israeli law allows any Knesset Member (MK) who holds a ministerial position to give up their seat in the Knesset, thus making space for lower-placed candidates from their party. Although Peretz and Smotrich were appointed as ministers of education and transport respectively, they did not vacate their seats for Ben Gvir.

A man casts his vote during the Israeli general elections in Tel Aviv on 9 April 2019 [Faiz Abu Rmeleh/Anadolu Agency]

A man casts his vote during the Israeli general elections in Tel Aviv on 9 April 2019 [Faiz Abu Rmeleh/Anadolu Agency]

For its part, URWP has said it will not consider another agreement with Otzma Yehudit if Baruch Marzel is among the candidates. A settler who lives in an illegal Israeli settlement in Hebron, in the occupied West Bank, Marzel previously worked as a parliamentary aide for Kahane and was a Kach party spokesman and activist. He has a history of anti-Palestinian violence, attacking Palestinian activist Issa Amro at his Hebron home.

Otzma Yehudit hit back against URWP’s stance, with Ben Gvir telling yesterday’s campaign launch “they are vetoing Baruch Marzel and [other Otzma candidate] Bentzi Gopstein. And I said to them ‘who are you to disqualify Baruch Marzel? Who are you to disqualify Bentzi Gopstein?’”

Gopstein added: “They are scared. [Ben Gvir] wears a suit. I don’t, neither does Baruch but it is okay, we’re all Otzma Yehudit.”

The URWP and Otzma Yehudit have until early August to declare their electoral slate and any working arrangements. There is speculation that all small right-wing parties may merge into a broader faction, given that many teeter near the 3.25 per cent minimum threshold needed to sit in the Knesset and the lack of an outright majority for the right-wing bloc.

A poll published this morning found that a “right-wing mega-merger” – which would see the two URWP factions and Otzma Yehudit join with the New Right (Hayemin Hehadash) party and Zehut – could win 19 seats in September. In April, both the New Right and Zehut failed to cross the minimum threshold, while URWP won only five seats.

#IsraElex19: Israeli Elections 2019

New Right and Zehut have reportedly held discussions about a potential alliance, though thus far no agreement has been reached. New Right head, former Education Minister Naftali Bennett, has also reached out to long-time ally Ayelet Shaked, the former justice minister, offering to step down as party leader and serve as her number two if she returns to the party.

The pair parted ways after their dire April election performance; they were subsequently unceremoniously dismissed from their ministerial positions by Netanyahu for trying to attend a high-level security cabinet meeting despite no longer holding Knesset seats.

However, whether Netanyahu will now allow a mega-merger to go ahead is not yet clear. The same poll suggests that such a move would hurt his Likud party, which would drop to only 25 seats, ten less than the 35 it won in April. He would therefore likely veto any such merger, as this could put his biggest rival, Benny Gantz’s Blue and White (Kahol Lavan) party, in front with 31 seats and deprive him of the chance to form a government.

With or without a mega-merger, Netanyahu will likely still need former Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party to form a ruling coalition. Some polls have predictedLieberman’s party could win as many as nine Knesset seats, while in the event of a mega-merger he is predicted to win six. In either event he would hold the kingmaker position, once again being able to grant or withhold his support at whim and hamper the formation of a government.

In light of this potential repeat deadlock, officials within the Likud party – allegedly at Netanyahu’s request – have considered cancelling the election. However, Knesset legal advisor Eyal Yinon yesterday ruled that the election cannot be cancelled, unless in the event of extreme circumstances such as war.

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