Netanyahu cozies up to far-right parties; centrists respond with own alliance

Image: Rabbi Meir Kahane in 1989
Rabbi Meir Kahane in Jerusalem in 1989. Copyright Sara Binovic
By Associated Press and Reuters with NBC News World News
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The Israeli PM's strongest challengers joined forces Thursday. The centrist candidates are aiming to end Netanyahu's decade in power.


JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has forged an election alliance with two far-right parties in a bid to unify his hard-line bloc ahead of April elections.

His strongest challengers responded by uniting Thursday, a dramatic turn in a race Netanyahu's Likud party has been predicted to win easily.

On Wednesday, Likud announced it would reserve the 28th spot on its parliamentary list for the pro-settler Jewish Home party and grant it two Cabinet ministries in a future government if it merges with the extremist Jewish Power party.

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Jewish Power is comprised of hard-line religious nationalists who have cast themselves as successors to the banned Kahanist movement, which dreamed of turning Israel into a Jewish theocracy and advocated forced removal of Palestinians.

Among the prominent figures in the joint Jewish Home-Jewish Power list are Bezalel Smotrich, a self-avowed "proud homophobe," Itamar Ben Gvir, an attorney who has made a career defending radical Israeli settlers implicated in West Bank violence, and Benzi Gopstein, leader of an extremist anti-assimilation group whose Twitter handle translates to "Kahane was right."

The late American-born Rabbi Meir Kahane's Jewish Defense League is considered a terrorist organization by the FBI.

Rabbi Meir Kahane in Jerusalem in 1989.
Rabbi Meir Kahane in Jerusalem in 1989.Sara Binovic

Kahane served one term in the Knesset in the 1980s as head of the Kach party. It also called for a ban on intermarriage between Israeli Jews and Arabs.

Kahane's movement was subsequently banned from Israeli politics as racist. He was assassinated in 1990 in New York by an Egyptian-born American.

Netanyahu, 69, has been in power for the past decade. He is embroiled in multiple corruption allegations and faces a potential impending indictment, but denies any wrongdoing. Netanyahu also served as prime minister from 1996 to 1999.

Israelis vote for party lists of candidates for seats in the 120-member Parliament.

Recent polls project Likud winning about 30 seats, while Jewish Home and Jewish Power may not have enough support to enter Parliament on their own in the April 9 election. Together, the two small parties would likely cross the electoral threshold and capture several parliamentary seats.

Benny Gantz, a former army chief who is Netanyahu's main challenger, criticized the prime minister's courting of extremists. His Israeli Resilience party said: "Netanyahu lost touch with his Zionism and with his dignity."

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Gantz and Yair Lapid, head of the Yesh Atid party, announced Thursday that they were joining forces. In a statement, the two centrists said they were "motivated by national responsibility."

Under their unity arrangement, the two agreed to a rotation leadership should they come to power under which Gantz would first serve as prime minister and would then be replaced by Lapid after two and a half years.

The new party would "bring forth a cadre of security and social leaders to ensure Israel's security and to reconnect its people and heal the divide within Israeli society," they said, in a dig at Netanyahu.

Parties led by Benny Gantz, left, and Yair Lapid had teamed up ahead of Israel\'s April 9 election.
Parties led by Benny Gantz, left, and Yair Lapid had teamed up ahead of Israel\'s April 9 election.Thomas Coex

Even if their joint list surpasses Likud at the ballot box, it is not guaranteed to form the next government unless it can garner a parliamentary majority by forming a collation with other parties. But the dramatic merger seems enough to make the election a real fight for Netanyahu.


"For the first time since 2009, we have a competitive race for the premiership and this is the result of the emergence of this new centrist force," said Yohanan Plesner, a former lawmaker and president of the non-partisan Israel Democracy Institute.

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