The negotiations between Religious Zionism Chairman MK Bezalel Smotrich and Otzma Yehudit Chairman Itamar Ben Gvir will decide the fate of national-religious politics for the next few years, but the game is mostly about how much would Ben Gvir be able to capitalize on his popularity and how far down would Smotrich be able to keep his price. The polls have been predicting between 10 and 12 seats, occasionally a little more, for their united front, which is the traditional number associated with the best the old NRP was ever able to win. Ben Gvir, who hails from groups well to the right of the NRP community––the Rabbi Meir Kahana heirs, if you will––wants half, in Knesset seats, committee chairmanships, and government ministries. The response from Smotrich so far has been a big, fat, “in your dreams.”
In a Channel 12 interview last week, Smotrich was asked to give a date for when the two sides would sign an agreement and reacted: “It will happen when we think it’s right and when we manage to reach agreements. Who’s standing with a stopwatch? Do you have some hourglass that’s about to run out?”
He was right, of course. The election is 100 days away, with the Tishrei holidays in the middle. There’s no hurry. The race will start in earnest in mid-October, and until then, he, Smotrich, will have the upper hand. His party is much bigger, and his chances to increase his numbers are excellent, with or without Ben Gvir. And with Yamina sinking fast below the vote threshold, Smotrich has to consider luring in Ayelet Shaked’s voters, in which case Ben Gvir would be more a liability than an asset.
Smotrich does not miss a chance to remind Ben Gvir of the times when he, too, crashed below the threshold vote and burned thousands of right-wing votes. He even blames Ben Gvir and another crash & burn candidate, Moshe Feiglin, for the left’s victories.
“Itamar and I don’t agree on everything and that’s fine, but we have to be careful not to throw votes below the blocking percentage,” Smotrich cautioned in that Channel 12 interview. “Itamar threw away votes more than once and twice, as did the New Right (the former Yamina party under Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked – DI). We have been in the craziness of the last few years only because of such adventures of the New Right and of Feiglin and Ben Gvir.”
“We showed responsibility then, and we will continue to show responsibility, and we will go together because that’s what’s right,” Smotrich concluded, but there was no doubt that by going together he also meant Ben Gvir would never get his desired half of the political proceeds.
Ben Gvir is frustrated. He started out very hot and very early, suggesting RZ and OY hire professional pollsters who would determine the best possible division of powers between them, and carry it out. Smotrich, of course, would have none of that. He invested instead in real polling, namely recruiting new party members ahead of the primaries. In the end, the most he is probably going to offer Ben Gvir are two slots in the first 10 spots on their combined list.
Ben Gvir is unhappy, naturally. Sunday night, at an election stop in Bat Yam with a reported crowd of 500, he said about Smotrich: “I really like him, I really appreciate him, but unfortunately, the feeling that Bezalel doesn’t want to run together. His disparaging suggestions are nothing new. I am working for unity.”
At a premium. Speaking on Channel 12 on Sunday night, Ben Gvir bragged he could win between 5 and 7 seats running on his own. He unpacked the math: the best poll results the combined list has been given in the polls were 13 to 14 seats. That’s not the average they’ve been getting, which is more 10 to 12, as I said earlier. It’s the very, very, probably unrealistic best. Ben Gvir insists he is responsible for half those votes that would be cast for the united list, so on his own, he must be worth the same, outlandishly optimistic figure. He isn’t.
Ben Gvir poo-pooed the interviewer’s suggestion that his voters were not the “classic” national religious crowd and insisted he was pulling in voters from the periphery who are enamored with his in-your-face, street theater politics. Frankly, it’s the stuff that makes him a liability from Smotrich’s point of view. Smotrich believes his Religious Zionism party is worth at least 10 seats, with or without Ben Gvir. He sees Ben Gvir as an asset, a nice dessert if you will, but not the main course.
It remains to be seen whether Ben Gvir ends up slamming the door behind him on the negotiations. It’s definitely his instinctive move, which is alarming because it’s destructive. “I hope that after the year I’ve had and after the great success, people will see it,” he told Channel 12 Sunday. “But I won’t wait until the last minute. I want a union, but if I run alone, I’ll take a lot of mandates. If I run alone, I can bring between 6-7 mandates. In all polls, if I lead the list, the list scores bigger.”
“But I’m ready to give it up,” he said, meaning the leadership of a party he did not sweat to establish and gained access to only through the efforts of then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who had had enough of watching Ben Gvir torching right-wing votes, so he came down hard on Smotrich to include him. “But I’m not ready to give up on the nature of the list, not anymore,” Ben Gvir concluded.
Interestingly, Ben Gvir’s enthusiasm laced with threats has yet to move any of the major national-religious rabbis to urge Smotrich to give in. Things could look different if they did. But for now, Smotrich looks like the more skilled politician. He knows Ben Gvir is not worth 3.25% of the votes running alone (that’s the threshold vote). The question is – does Ben Gvir know it?