Israeli parties gear up for primaries as election campaign gains steam

Religious Zionist Party and Otzma Yehudit mull merger; Likud primaries cancelled with no challengers to Netanyahu.

By Amir Ettinger, Israel Hayom via JNS

The Likud primaries for the party’s Knesset slate will be held on Aug. 10, the faction announced on Tuesday. Earlier this week, the Likud canceled the race for party chairman, as no one sought to challenge opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu.

Back in October, Likud MK Yuli Edelstein announced that he would vie for the party’s leadership, but since had a change of heart, saying last month, “At this time, when we are facing an election campaign that is critical for Israel, I cannot drag the Likud into an internal conflict.”

Netanyahu welcomed Edelstein’s decision, saying, “I’m sure we will continue to work together and together with all Likud members toward winning the elections, which will be a great win for Israel.”

Over at the Religious Zionist Party, party leader and Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, head of the far-right Otzma Yehudit Party, announced that they have made progress on an agreement that would allow their factions to maintain a joint slate.

Ahead of the March 2021 elections, Ben-Gvir joined forces with the radical Noam Party. Polls predicted that the joint ticket would fail to cross the four-seat electoral threshold, prompting the two to join forces with Smotrich, whose Religious Zionist Party was predicted to win four Knesset seats at the time.

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Otzma Yehudit is a radical party that follows the Kahanist doctrine, while Noam is an extremist religious-Zionist party that follows the teachings of Rabbi Zvi Yisrael Tau, co-founder and president of Yeshivat Har Hamor in Jerusalem. Noam is known for its hardline anti-LGBTQ and anti-Reform positions.

Otzma Yehudit and Noam became factions within the Religious Zionist Party and the joint slate won six Knesset seats.

A joint ticket for the Nov. 1 elections, however, was not guaranteed. Until Tuesday, Smotrich had remained mum on whether he would again run with Ben-Gvir—a radical far-right activist-turned-politician who has been trying to shed the image of a provocateur in the hope of appealing to a larger constituency. The latter, for his part, said he was open to it.

A joint statement issued by the two on Tuesday said that they “agreed on accelerated negotiations to finalize a joint run in the coming days.”

Smotrich had sought to hold off on the negotiations until the Religious Zionist Party held its primaries, but Ben-Gvir refused, as he seeks to translate his rising popularity into better placing on the joint slate. The Religious Zionist Party is expected to refuse him, as granting the request will leave the primaries hollow.

Over at Meretz, former party head Zehava Gal-On announced Tuesday that she will be staging a political comeback in bid to again win the party’s leadership in the party’s primaries, set for Aug. 23.

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Gal-On chaired Meretz from 2012-2018, when she retired from politics.

Her comeback has been spurred by the turmoil in the left-wing party, which is performing poorly in early polls.

Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz announced last week that he will not seek a second term as the party’s chairman. Former party chief Tamar Zandberg announced over the weekend that she will be sitting the next election out, and barring any new hopefuls, it seems that Gal-On will face off against MK Yair Golan, who announced his leadership bid last week.