Likud and Yisrael Beitenu to unite for upcoming elections

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman after announcing a merged Likud and Yisrael Beytenu

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman after announcing a merged Likud and Yisrael Beytenu

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has shocked the Israeli political system once again with yet another surprise move, announcing the merger of the Likud party with Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beitenu:

Nearly six months after shocking the political system by forming a unity government with Kadima, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has thrown another curve ball and joined forces with Avigdor Lieberman ahead of the upcoming elections.

In a press conference held Thursday evening, the two men announced they were uniting the Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu under one ticket.

“We shall ask the public for a mandate to lead Israel with force. It will empower the government, it will empower the prime minister and therefore the state. I hope to win the public’s trust again and to get a clear mandate that will allow me to focus on what is important,” Netanyahu said.

[...]

The prime minister named the challenges the new government will face including the Iranian nuclear program and the anti-terror campaign.

“There is still so much to do, primarily lowering the cost of living. After we stabilized Israel’s economy in the wake of the ongoing global crisis, we can continue to focus on reducing the cost of living. This is the time to project power vis-à-vis our enemies as well as internal unity. A prime minister in Israel needs great power and unity.”

Netanyahu was followed by Lieberman, who said: “The merger is a combination of experience, force and unity. This is what Israel’s citizens expect. Given the challenges, we need national responsibility. Not shreds of the latest trendy parties which vanish after one term.”

Lieberman said he was confident the newly unified party could win the election. “I have no doubt as to the Israeli public’s reaction and I have no doubt we will meet all of the expectations we created. We will meet those promises and will do it better than the previous administration.”

The dramatic decision was made after secret negotiations between the two men with senior officials from both parties left out of the loop.

Of course rumours and speculation are running riot amongst the politicians and pundits:

Recent polls have indicated a drop in Likud support rates with the party winning only 24-25 Knesset seats. A senior party officials said that Netanyahu was worried that “Lieberman would run away after the election and therefore decided on an instant merger.”

A poll conducted by strategic advisor Arthur Finkelstein, who works with Yisrael Beiteinu, also showed an downward turn for the Likud.

Meanwhile on the left, unity was not the order of the day:

Shortly after the press conference, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid rejected the possibility of a merger between the left-center parties. “The merger sheds light on the current political map – Netanyahu has aligned himself with the radical Right, (Shelly) Yachimovich went way left and the decent moderate Israeli majority cannot identify with yesterday’s parties,” he said.

Yachimovich on her part has called the centrists to join forces under her leadership and stressed she will not join a government headed by Netanyahu and Lieberman.

The Times of Israel in its report on the merger, wrote that the left condemned the union with its usual hyperbole:

This would be “a radical, extremist government,” said left-wing Meretz party leader Zahava Gal-on, coining the term “Biberman government” to describe the merger. She said the hawkish Liberman, as foreign minister, had isolated Israel diplomatically, and that the new partnership meant the now-”settler-esque” Netanyahu was completely throwing in his lot with the West Bank settlements.

“This sends the message that the governing bloc will continue to incite against the left and against the Arabs,” she said. “The fascism in the Likud back benches is now – with the Liberman merger – coming to the fore.”

Party politicking has already begun:

Internal surveys were reported to have shown that the joint list would win more than 50 seats in the upcoming elections, a total unheard of by a single party in decades, and one that if realized would virtually guarantee Netanyahu continuing as prime minister in the next parliament, no matter which candidates ran and no matter which alliances were formed against him. In the current 120-seat Knesset, Kadima is the biggest party, with 28 seats, followed by the Likud, with 27. A resurgent Labor Party, which has eight seats in the outgoing parliament, has been predicted in most opinion polls to become the second biggest party to the Likud after the elections.

Likud Knesset member Carmel Shamah-HaCohen told Army Radio that the partnership had been hatched in private. He said it was not clear how the joint list of candidates for the Knesset would be drawn up. The Likud is shortly set to choose its Knesset representatives, as voted by the entire party membership. The Yisrael Beytenu Knesset slate, by contrast, is drawn up by a small panel controlled by Liberman himself.

Michael Eitan, a veteran Likud MK who is seen as unlikely to gain a place high enough on the Likud slate to return to the Knesset, slammed the alliance as potentially marking “the demise of the Likud” and said it was anti-democratic. He called for a meeting of the party’s Central Committee to reject it.

Netanyahu and Liberman both deny, however, that they have agreed to rotate the premiership:

Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Liberman have secretly agreed to “rotate” the prime ministership between them should their new joint list win January’s elections, Israel’s Channel 2 claimed Thursday night. Aides to both men swiftly denied the claim.

The TV station’s news analyst Amnon Abramovich said their agreement provides for Netanyahu to serve as prime minister for the first three years of the next government, and Liberman to switch places with him in year four.

Abramovich said this clause in their agreement was not meant to have been publicized. What was meant to become public knowledge, he said, was simply that Liberman would have the choice of any cabinet position he wished.

Their agreement also includes a commitment by Netanyahu not to relinquish the Golan Heights to Syria, Abramovich said.

As Netanyahu and Liberman completed a press conference on Thursday night to announce that their respective Likud and Yisrael Beytenu parties would run together on a joint list in January, a reporter asked them whether they had agreed to rotate the prime ministership. Neither man responded, and they left the room without answering any questions. Twenty minutes later, however, spokespeople for both men denied the report.

Such an agreement would represent a major concession — and rather hard to fathom, at that — by Netanyahu to Liberman, since the Likud currently has 27 seats to Yisrael Beytenu’s 17, and polls have shown Netanyahu on course to smoothly regain the premiership

The Haredi party Shas welcomed the move, saying that it hopes it will benefit from disgruntled voters, although with some caveats:

Senior officials in Shas welcomed the news of a merger between the Likud and Yisrael Beiteinuas one that could benefit the haredi party. They are hoping that some of the Likud loyalists will abandon the party in search for one that better represents their needs.

Shortly after the dramatic announcement, Shas’ three leaders – Eli Yishai, Aryeh Deri and Ariel Atias – issued a joint statement welcoming the move. “The merger makes the choice simpler. It is now obvious that there is just one party that cares for the needy and for Jewish tradition.”

[...]

Meanwhile, some haredi politicians expressed concern that the Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu merger will leave the ultra-Orthodox bloc out of the coalition allowing it to pass universal draft bills.

Knesset Member Moshe Gafni of the United Torah Judaism said that the party had locked horns with Yisrael Beiteinu in the last term. “Their merger with the Likud will create many challenges for the haredi public in the next term.”

Similarly, the religious Zionist National Union party expressed hope that it will gain from this merger:

The National Union party said Thursday that the union of Likud and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beytenu may drive away traditional and religious Jews, who object to Lieberman’s “extreme secular” policies. Yisrael Beytenu is nationalist,but elements of its platform, such as secular marriage, could not be accepted by most religious Jews.

“Likud has just delivered a divorce decree to its traditional and religious voters,” the party said in a statement.

Other leading nationalists expressed mixed feelings Thursday with the surprise move to unite Likud and Yisrael Beytenu.

Moshe Feiglin, the head of the Jewish Leadership faction in Likud and a possible member of the next Knesset, congratulated Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman on the move. He called on Netanyahu to bring the other components of the nationalist camp  — probably a reference to the religious Zionist parties – into one large nationalist party.

[...]

MK Zevulun Orlev of the Jewish Home said that now, the Jewish Home is the only remaining alternative for the religious public. Naftali Bennett, who is vying with Orlev for leadership of the party, said that religious Zionism received “a great boost” today, and that the public must choose between a coalition of Netanyahu-Lieberman with the left, and a coalition between Netanyahu-Lieberman and the nationalist camp.

Arutz Sheva asks what each party had to gain from this new alliance:

Speaking on Channel 1’s Mabat News Hour, Minister Limor Livnat compared the deal to Menahem Begin’s master stroke in 1965, when he formed the Gahal bloc (Gush Herut Liberalim) between his own Herut Party and the Liberals that eventually morphed into the Likud and provided for the first time a credible alternative to the hegemony of the Labor movement in Israel.

I do not buy this comparison. Herut and the Liberals were two distinct movements with very different and even antagonistic economic philosophies – it worked because Begin was willing to defer on economic issues – and the Liberals were much more dovish than Herut. Herut brought the electoral muscle and the Liberals brought respectability to the marriage.

I would prefer to compare what we saw tonight to the 1968 merger between MAPAI, RAFI and Achdut Ha’Avoda that gave birth to the Israeli Labor Party. Avigdor Lieberman is returning home to Likud, as are Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau and the party’s latest pickup, Yair Shamir, son of the late Prime Minister Yizhak Shamir. One can also mention Orli Levy, the daughter of David Levy, another Likud stalwart.

This is reminiscent of Shimon Peres, Moshe Dayan, Yizhak Navon, Chaim Herzog and others returning to a united Labor Party after following their mentor David Ben-Gurion out of MAPAI into the political desert in 1965 following the split between Ben-Gurion and his successor as Prime Minister, Levi Eshkol.

Like Lieberman, they rejoined the parent party in a minority status, but eventually worked their way to the top. The aforementioned RAFI leaders produced 3 presidents, a prime minister and 2 defense ministers. This is something that they could not have accomplished by remaining on their own.

Lieberman has probably made the same calculation. His electoral success won him the post of foreign minister, but if he aspires to the top job he needs to belong to Likud. By getting the number two spot on the joint list, Lieberman has effectively leapfrogged ministers such as Gideon Saar or Moshe Yaalon in a post-Netanyahu succession.

What does Netanyahu think that he has gained from the merger? For one thing he has made a splash after weeks in which he saw rival parties getting ink as some big names and retreads announced their adhesion to the Labor Party or to Lapid’s Future Party.

This merger will be the talk of the media for the next few days. In addition, in the election campaign, the two parties will work together rather than being forced to attack each other.

Both Netanyahu and Lieberman mentioned the issue of governance. Israel has a fragmented political system and as part of the “grass is greener” complex, Israelis hanker for an essentially two-party system that would not be subject to “extortion” by the smaller parties.

By merging with Lieberman, Netanyahu gets a leg up on the system reform issue. He can now argue that he has taken the first major step towards rationalizing the party system.

We will only know if this move succeeded in the days and weeks after the elections. Meanwhile this all makes a great spectator sport for the average Israeli man-in-the-street.

Let no one ever tell you that Israeli politics are boring!

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