Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu enhanced his Likud’s chances of winning Israel’s January election by signing up Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beitenu for a joint ticket, called “Likud Beitenu.”
This step dismayed the opposition parties as they jostled each other for the political center by stealing their thunder and catching them by surprise.
They reacted by slamming the new alliance as hard line, hawkish, ultra-nationalist and capitalist. One voiced astonishment at the prime minister “getting in bed with an admirer of Vladimir Putin.”
Netanyahu said the union would strengthen his government for leading Israel against security threats, “above all preventing Iran from arming itself with nuclear weapons and the struggle against terror.”
Lieberman pledged to lower the prices of basic products, sensing that Israel’s traditional campaign key issues of peace and security were being edged out this time by social discontent and domestic issues. This could change if regional volatility throws up surprises.
The Palestinian issue has also receded to the margins. Both partners have said they favor the revival of peace talks. But Mahmoud Abbas is widely regarded as a spent force – even in the Arab world.
Before the merger, Netanyahu’s Likud was the clear front-runner for the coming election in all the opinion polls and he was widely expected to win an unprecedented third term as prime minister.
But then, in the last two weeks, the opposition Labor party under its new leader, former broadcaster Shelly Yachimovich, began shooting forward. Suddenly, her “social democratic” agenda and vocal criticism of the government for widening the income gap between the rich and the poor was being taken seriously. People were knocking on her door to join the Labor list, including some of the leaders of last year’s massive social tent protest.
Even so, Netanyahu did not feel threatened. He only heard a distant wake-up call when Yachimovich got together with Tzipi Livni, former foreign minister and ex-leader of the opposition Kadima party, to discuss a new left-of-center alliance to challenge Likud.
Still, it was soon obvious that even If they ever came together on a platform, neither Yachimovich nor Livni was likely to yield the top spot to the other.
The wake-up call came closer this week, when Livni went calling on President Shimon Peres. After an election, it is up to the president to name the prime minister-designate – either the head of the largest party or the politician best able to form a viable government. And the tighter the race, the greater his discretion.
Netanyahu has been at daggers drawn with Peres for some time and he suspected the president of planning to push Livni forward.
Deciding not to take any chances, the prime minister clinched the deal with Lieberman.
Some of Netanyahu’s own Likud adherents will be called on to move aside and yield safe portfolios and seats to the new partner.
More sacrifices will be required if, after the election, he invites a third partner to join his government. In line is Yesh Atid (Future), a brand-new party established by the former journalist and TV broadcaster, Yair Lapid.
Like Yachimovich, he makes up in freshness what he lacks in governing experience.
In the outgoing Knesset, Likud held 27 seats and Israel Beitenu 15. They cautiously expect their united list to garner 42 mandates, bolstered by Future’s estimated win of 11 seats in its first election, although Lapid expects more.
The president will then have to tap Netanyahu as head of the largest bloc as prime minister designate.
The Likud leader says he will bow out at the end of his third term.
Lieberman and Lapid are both ardent advocates of political reform. They say the present system attracts an over-abundance of splinter parties, some of them downright whacky, and this makes for unstable, unwieldy government coalitions which rarely survive full term.
Whereas Lieberman explained Friday to reporters that his goal is to reduce the number of political parties reaching the Knesset to five at most, Lapid aims for three large blocs: The right, headed by Netanyahu and Lieberman, the center, which he claims for himself, and the left under Yachimovich.