Israel's Jewish Home party has appointed a new head to replace Education Minister Naftali Bennett, months after he broke away to form the New Right party.
Jewish Home's Central Committee yesterday selected Rafi Peretz, a 63-year-old former chief rabbi of the Israeli army, as the party's new chairman ahead of the General Election on 9 April. Peretz has been described by a member of his own party as "clearly nationalist ultra-Orthodox," according to Haaretz, making him "much more conservative" than the already conservative Bennett.
Speaking after his appointment yesterday, Peretz slammed his predecessor and Israel's Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked for abandoning Jewish Home, though he stopped short of mentioning them by name. "There are those who think that our house is old," he explained. "Not shiny enough. Not adaptable enough. They walk through it, enter for a short period, enjoy it, use it and continue on their way."
The new party leader added that in his home there is belief in the people of Israel, the Torah of Israel and the land of Israel. "In our home, we are proud of this belief. In our home we walk with that belief with our heads held high and do not try to hide it."
Peretz has a long history of involvement in Israel's settler movement. In 1992, he established a military preparation academy in Atzmona, then an outpost in the illegal Gush Katif settlement bloc near Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip. He lived with his family there until Israel's unilateral "disengagement" from Gaza in 2005 and now lives in Neve, a town located near the Egypt-Israel border.
The former chief rabbi of the army has also made controversial statements on other issues, declaring, for example, that Jerusalem's Al-Haram Al-Sharif is of "no religious significance" to Muslims. Home to Al-Aqsa Mosque and the iconic Dome of the Rock, the compound is in fact the third-holiest site in Islam after Makkah and Madinah.
It is interesting to note, however, that Peretz is not a central figure in Israel's West Bank settler community, which constitutes a crucial support base for Jewish Home as a party. It is thought that, in order to address this gap and meet the four-seat minimum threshold usually required to sit in the 120-seat Knesset, Jewish Home will unite with other right-wing factions such as the National Union. Headed by extreme right-wing Knesset Member (MK) Bezalel Smotrich, National Union is itself an amalgamation of several small religious-Zionist parties, including Tkuma and Moledet, which openly advocate for the annexation of all or parts of the occupied West Bank.
Smotrich is expected to push for the chance to lead any such alliance, according to the Times of Israel, which adds that at the very least he will work to "have members of his [National Union] faction placed higher on the line-up than they have been in the past." He has stirred controversy in recent months with his hard-line views on Israel's illegal settlements, with Israeli NGO Yesh Din pressing for him to be investigated for incitement after a group of illegal settler youths attacked Palestinian vehicles on Route 60, south of Nablus in the occupied West Bank, allegedly at his request.