Why Otzmah Yehudit flamed out in Israeli elections

The decline in support for Otzmah Yehudit, which once again failed to pass the vote threshold to enter the Knesset, was especially notable in the settlements.

al-monitor Itamar Ben-Gvir, leader of the far-right Otzma Yehudit (Jewish power), waves while marching with supporters at the Mahane Yehuda Market, Jerusalem, Sept. 13, 2019.  Photo by MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP via Getty Images.

Topics covered

west bank, israeli occupation, ultra-orthodox, likud, benjamin netanyahu, otzma yehudit, itamar ben-gvir

Mar 9, 2020

The results of the March 2 election for the 23rd Knesset attest to the crash of Otzmah Yehudit (Jewish Power), the party that follows the path of Rabbi Meir Kahane, the man who brought ideological racism against Arabs to Israel. It received 19,362 votes, less than 0.5% of the vote. In the September 2019 election the party attracted 83,608 votes, or almost 2%. 

An analysis of March 2 voting at polling stations where in the past large percentages had voted for Otzmah Yehudit indicates that pre-election polls proved to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Grim predictions of the party failing to pass the vote threshold to enter the Knesset combined with President Donald Trump’s “deal of the century” to destroy the party's chances. 

Leading up to the September election, Yamina senior Naftali Bennett had blocked the addition of Itamar Ben-Gvir, Otzmah Yehudit's chair, to the electoral list of his national-religious party. Thus, Otzmah Yehudit ran independently, and its focused campaign drew large numbers from among certain voters, such as those who for religious-ideological reasons couldn’t accept Ayelet Shaked, a secular woman, at the head of Yamina's list. The 83,000 votes Otzmah Yehudit won were worth two Knesset seats, but because of the high vote threshold, 3.25% of the vote, or four seats, it remained outside the Knesset. 

Ben-Gvir was then viewed as someone who wasted two seats for the right-wing/ultra-Orthodox bloc that could have helped Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu form a government. Leading up to the March election, many Otzmah Yehudit voters were convinced that if at the height of its strength the party couldn’t pass the vote threshold, it would be preferable to vote for other parties in the right-wing/ultra-Orthodox bloc. In this regard, there is a minor reason and a major reason why some Otzmah Yehudit supporters voted for the Likud this time.

The minor reason was the rhetoric and discourse of the ruling party and its leaders against the Arab Joint List. Harsh statements by the prime minister against the Arab Israelis — such as “The Arabs want to annihilate us all” — outflanked Otzmah Yehudit on the right. It turned out that those who believe in such a sentiment preferred to vote for the ruling Likud than Otzmah Yehudit, which stood no chance of entering the Knesset. 

The major reason was the presentation of Trump’s so-called deal of the century. The publication of the plan convinced right-wing voters who support the settlement enterprise that Netanyahu is the man who can ensure the future of the settlements and the outposts created without a permit and whose residents are the most extreme ideologues for Jewish settlement in the West Bank. When Netanyahu ensured their future with promises of annexation based on Trump’s plan, the motivation to vote for someone else decreased. Thus, the Likud’s share among the settlers increased at a significant rate in March compared to September. 

According to data collected by the settlers' Judea and Samaria Council on voting rates on the West Bank, 29.7% voted for the Likud in March compared to 22.4% in September. On the other hand, Otzmah Yehudit was completely wiped out, winning 1.6% this month compared to 6.9% in the fall. 

In September Otzmah Yehudit also benefitted from the support of the ultra-Orthodox community. For example, it won 22% of Kfar Chabad votes, which was more than the Likud garnered. In the recent election, it won only 4.9% of the vote there compared to the Likud and especially the ultra-Orthodox Shas, which saw a significant increase. 

The fall in the voting rate for Otzmah Yehudit could also be attributed to Ben-Gvir’s attempt at a superficial bit of ideological moderation. It was well known that Ben-Gvir had hung in his home a photo of Baruch Goldstein, the doctor who murdered scores of Muslim worshippers at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron in 1994. On Jan. 15, Ben-Gvir announced that he had taken the picture down in response to Bennett asserting, “I won’t include on my slate someone who keeps a photograph in his living room of a man who murdered 29 innocent people.”

Goldstein's action made him an admired figure among the most extreme segment of Rabbi Kahane’s supporters. For nationalist Judaism, the murders were an attempt to purify the Cave of the Patriarchs, which is sacred in Judaism as the burial place of the patriarchs. It is also a holy site for Muslims. Ben-Gvir had refused for years to take down the photo, but the opportunity to be included on Yamina's candidate list changed his mind.

A., a settler and former supporter of Otzmah Yehudit who requested anonymity, told Al-Monitor, “If Ben-Gvir is ashamed of Goldstein, I’m ashamed of him. If he acts this way in order to appease politicians and for the sake of a media image, he doesn’t have a spine. Thus, I and many of my friends simply didn’t vote.” Indeed, at the Yitzhar settlement, which at 23.3% had the highest voting rate for Otzmah Yehudit in March, 58% of voters in the settlement had voted for the party in September

Ben-Gvir knew that he had no chance of passing the vote threshold as an independent, so he did everything he could to join Yamina. He has long understood that to have influence he has to get to the place where decisions are made, and in accordance, has tried to brandish moderate credentials by claiming that he is personally closer to the Israeli mainstream.

“I’m not from an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood or from a settlement stronghold like Kiryat Arba,” Ben-Gvir said in a 2012 television interview. “I’m from a secular home in Mevassert Zion, a mainstream Israeli town. I get Israeliness. They have written about me that what’s dangerous is that I speak Israeli. Israeliness is imprinted in me.” In another interview he said that if his son came out as gay, he would embrace him and accept him. 

In the next election, whenever it takes place, it’s likely that Ben-Gvir will run again. The hit his party took this month was especially hard, so it’s possible that he would try again to join one of the right-wing lists despite the racist ideology of Kahane that Otzmah Yehudit represents. 

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