Israel’s United Right party not united at all

Rabbi Rafi Peretz and Knesset member Bezalel Smotrich, leaders of the United Right party, are each pushing coalition negotiations in another direction.

al-monitor A United Right election campaign banner depicting Rabbi Rafi Peretz and Bezalel Smotrich is seen near Benny Gantz's Blue and White party election campaign banner in Jerusalem, April 7, 2019. Photo by REUTERS/Ammar Awad.

Apr 24, 2019

Official coalition negotiations are slated to start April 28, and the United Right party expects to receive two ministerial portfolios. Despite their efforts to present a united front, the two future ministers, Rabbi Rafi Peretz and Bezalel Smotrich, are on a collision course with no obvious escape route. The United Right party was established shortly before the April 9 elections, in February 2019, uniting HaBayit HaYehudi, National Union-Tkuma and Israel Power factions. Now this alliance, which was the end product of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s concerted efforts to consolidate the religious right, seems unlikely to remain united.

In fact, Peretz and Smotrich have little in common. Had Netanyahu not brought them together to save votes on the right, they never would have found themselves sharing the leadership of the same faction. Peretz is a former helicopter pilot, a brigadier general in the reserves and former chief rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces. He represents the classic religious Zionist movement, committed to the state and its institutions. He was elected head of HaBayit HaYehudi after Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked left the party, and now heads the United Right.

In contrast, Smotrich, who, at 39, is chairman of the National Union and No. 2 on the United Right list, was a Knesset backbencher for HaBayit HaYehudi. He completed his studies in law — cum laude — and passed the bar. During the disengagement from Gaza in 2005, he was arrested and detained by the Shin Bet for three weeks as someone who could provoke riots. It seems that his worldview is clear. He is a full-blown right-wing extremist. Commitment to the state and its institutions are hardly his cup of tea. In 2006, for example, he was an organizer of the infamous “Bestiality Pride” parade to protest Jerusalem’s gay pride parade. In the outgoing Knesset, Smotrich frequently challenged Bennett and Shaked from the right, though, in most cases, his rants were considered little more than background noise. Had they not left the party, he would likely have remained a marginal character on the right.

The promo for the impending explosion in the United Right could be seen this week, when Peretz learned through the media that Smotrich submitted a long list of demands to the Likud team involved in preliminary coalition negotiations, on behalf of both of them, even though Peretz never agreed to it. This list of demands included the ministries of Education and Justice, which would certainly be acceptable to Peretz. The rest was more problematic. Smotrich demanded reforms to weaken the legal system, including the passage of legislation (a controversial clause) to overrule the Supreme Court, changes to the way judges are selected, diminishing the status of the attorney general, and imposing limits on the authority of the state comptroller.

Furthermore, he demanded the expansion of the Norwegian Law, which would allow radical-right activist Itamar Ben Gvir (No. 7 on the United Right list) to enter the Knesset once ministers were appointed. (The Norwegian Law stipulates that ministers cannot serve at the same time as parliamentarians. So a parliamentarian appointed minister must resign from his first position.) Smotrich then demanded the creation of an authority to legalize West Bank settlements, headed by a minister from his party, who would also serve as chairman of the ministerial committee on settlement, and the restoration of the Immunity Law to its 2005 version. This last amendment would benefit Netanyahu in particular, as he is facing indictment on fraud.

While Peretz is a political novice, he understood immediately how Smotrich took advantage of the press at his expense. He therefore sent Smotrich a scathing message, saying that as far as he was concerned, they could break up their partnership right now. Should that happen, HaBayit HaYehudi, headed by Peretz, would have four seats, while the National Union-Tkuma, headed by Smotrich, would have just two. In private conversations, Peretz seemed determined to see his threat through.

As it turns out, Peretz does not share Smotrich’s agenda with regard to the legal system. Nor does he support an amendment to the Immunity Law. In fact, he advocates a responsible, official approach. In private conversations, Peretz’s inner circle have spoken out harshly against Smotrich, claiming that he crossed a red line. They even went so far as to call his behavior childish, irresponsible and embarrassing.

Peretz also held a number of consultations with senior members of HaBayit HaYehudi about whether it would be worthwhile to break apart this partnership, thereby signaling to Smotrich that his threats are serious.

Later, the two men had a meeting in which Peretz made it perfectly clear to Smotrich that any future discussions with the Likud negotiating team will be conducted with his approval. He is unwilling to accept any more unilateral action.

In an effort to restore calm, Peretz tweeted April 23 that, “I want to emphasize that the relationship between me and my good friend Bezalel is excellent. We are partners, who coordinate our work together out of great love. God willing, we will continue that way, for the benefit of the Jewish people and religious Zionism.”

Smotrich responded with a tweet of his own: “Thank you, Rabbi Rafi. With God’s help, we will continue working shoulder to shoulder to maximize the achievements of religious Zionism and the State of Israel in the next government.”

Despite these warm posts, tensions are still brewing beneath the surface, and it looks like the two men are on a collision course. Anyone who expected the forced partnership between them to result in the kind of equitable relationship that Bennett and Shaked had has already been proven wrong. It is not just that the two men have a different agenda. There is also a distinct lack of chemistry between them. Peretz is the responsible adult, reasonable and pleasant, and he makes a point of choosing his words carefully in interviews. In contrast, Smotrich is a professional agitator and anti-establishment figure, planted firmly in the far right.

All that anyone needs to remember is their differing approaches to the disengagement from Gaza. While Smotrich was detained by the Shin Bet, Peretz, who headed the pre-military academy in the evacuated settlement of Atzmona, adopted a conciliatory tone and put an abrupt stop to any insinuations that the troops should disobey orders. He acted this way, even though he was also opposed to the disengagement. Upon entering politics last February, he said in an interview with Israel Hayom, “I am in the mainstream when it comes to my attitude toward the state and its laws. I would never be derisive of them. Harming them is like harming me.”

The tension between the two men and the possible split are hardly what keeps the prime minister up at night. He is traveling with his family in the north and posting pastoral photos and videos to various social networks. As far as he is concerned, a split could actually serve his interests. He thinks of it in terms of divide and conquer, while it would also help to rein in Smotrich, who is a red flag in the political system. Netanyahu would rather see a weakened Smotrich, who is not a member of his security Cabinet. Assuming that Yisrael Beitenu head Avigdor Liberman will join the coalition with his five seats, an independent Smotrich could well discover that Netanyahu could form a coalition without him. He could be left out. On the other hand, Netanyahu is fond of Peretz, and would certainly prefer him as a Cabinet member. The meetings they had in the past went well, too.

Meanwhile, Peretz has proven to Smotrich that while he may lack political experience, he is a quick study. Peretz and Smotrich are expected to begin coalition talks April 28 as members of a single faction, but what happens next is unclear. Only one thing is certain for now. In the post-Bennett, post-Shaked era, these two men will be providing quite a few political headlines, both as ministers and as heads of right-wing parties of their own.

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