In a move that is bound to shift the political landscape in Israel in advance of the country’s upcoming elections, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his primary coalition partner, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, plan to merge their right-wing political parties into one united right-wing group. “The fact they reached agreement should be welcomed by all of us,” Environment Minister and staunch Likud member Gilad Erdan said. “Now there will be a really clearly defined nationalist, rightist camp here.” Israel’s Channel Two reported that the new party would be called Likud Beiteinu – “The Likud is Our Home.”
“In Israel, the prime minister needs a big, cohesive force behind him,” Netanyahu declared at a news conference, emphasizing the pressing concern of security matters such as Iran’s burgeoning nuclear program, as well as economic and social difficulties in the Jewish state. The Prime Minister projected that his partnership with Lieberman would yield “a clear mandate that will allow me to focus on the main issues, rather than trifles.”
The merger would increase the Prime Minister’s already formidable political strength, with the revised Likud likely to receive twice the number of Knesset seats of its nearest rival in the January 22 election. At the same time, though, the injection of Lieberman into the Likud ranks may cause a backlash on the international level, as the Yisrael Beiteinu leader has rankled many foreign observers with his vehement criticism of the Palestinian Authority and its leader Mahmoud Abbas.
“The Prime Minister is essentially signaling that he has chosen the extremist, pro-settlement right, that he has chosen to walk in place, not to make progress in the diplomatic process,” Zehava Gal-On, leader of the liberal Meretz party, stated to Israel’s Army Radio.
Netanyahu has a record of seeking broad-based and ideologically binding political alliances as a counterweight to the watered down Israeli governance that can occur due to the profusion of small parties in the Knesset which often make parochial interests their chief priority. Lieberman has also publicly expressed his desire to revamp the splintered political system, where a low threshold of minimum votes fosters an array of small special-interest parties in the Knesset. “Real reform of governance begins, effectively, today,” the Foreign Minister said as he stood with Netanyahu at the press conference.
Last year, Defense Minister Ehud Barak resigned from the leadership of the center-left Labor party, thereby removing it from the coalition, to create a more conservative party essentially aligned with Netanyahu’s policies. The Prime Minister further widened the coalition this year by forming an alliance with the centrist Kadima party. However, that partnership disintegrated rather quickly over the government’s failure to put in place a reform of military conscription laws that allow Chareidi yeshiva students to be exempt from army service.
Netanyahu might attempt to revisit the draft issue with the assistance of the secularist Lieberman, an eventuality that seems plausible since the two leaders did not give advance notice to Shas, the coalition’s powerful religious party, about their planned merger. “I was absolutely surprised by this,” commented Shas leader Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who predicted that the move would lead leftist and Orthodox parties to form their own blocs.
A new national poll shows the Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu achieving, respectively, 27 and 12 of parliament’s 120 seats, and an eventual new Netanyahu-led coalition taking as many as 65 seats. The Likud denied a report that Netanyahu and Lieberman are planning to rotate the premiership between them in the next government.
Long-time Palestinian negotiator Hanan Ashrawi charged Netanyahu with abandoning any opportunity for a peace agreement with the Palestinians for the sake of tightening his grip on Israel’s leadership. “Such a dramatic shift to the right will be very costly for both sides, and it will again destroy chances of peace and will further separate issues of justice and Palestinian rights from Israeli politics,” Ashrawi asserted.
While the Prime Minister insists he is committed to achieving a permanent deal with the Palestinians, he disputes their claim on Judea and Samaria, as well as East Jerusalem, and he has repeatedly emphasized that stopping Iran’s nuclear goals and Abbas’s armed rival Islamist groups are Israel’s central problems.