Two weeks into his reelection campaign, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has joined forces with one of Israel’s most controversial politicians in a bold move apparently aimed at preempting any serious challenge from the center.
The unification of Mr. Netanyahu's Likud party with Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beytenu (Israel is Our Home) party ahead of January elections has the potential to pull Likud further to the right, alienating potential voters or – if the alliance proves victorious – lending credibility to Mr. Lieberman's agenda.
At a press conference tonight, the two leaders vowed that the new alliance would give Israel the experience, strength, and unity needed to face “immense challenges,” not least of all Iran’s nuclear program.
“This is the time to project strength toward our enemies and unity within ourselves,” said Netanyahu, standing side by side Lieberman in nearly identical dress, with blue ties that matched the sea of Israeli flags behind them.
“Unification will give us the power to defend Israel. The power to defend against foreign security threats and the power to enact social and economic change within the country,” said Netanyahu, whose administration was rocked by massive social protests last year. "We will ask the public to mandate us to powerfully lead Israel in the coming years.”
What kind of alliance?
Netanyahu and Lieberman gave few clues as to what sort of coalition they might build, which they will almost certainly need to do. Even together they are not expected to win a majority of the Israeli parliament’s 120 seats, but with an estimated 50 seats between them they will have greater leverage over small parties who demand political favors in exchange for joining the ruling coalition.
Some Likud officials have already scoffed at the alliance. One unnamed “senior” official was quoted by the liberal Haaretz paper as saying “we're repulsed by this partnership with Lieberman. I don't want to run with a person like Lieberman, with the kind of values he stands for.”
Lieberman has in the past advocated legislation seen as discriminatory toward Israel’s 20 percent Arab minority, including a bill that would have required all potential citizens to swear an oath of loyalty to Israel as a “Jewish and democratic” state.
Leslie Susser, diplomatic correspondent for The Jerusalem Report, says that under the new alliance Netanyahu may give greater weight to some of Lieberman’s initiatives but is likely to be very wary of “moving down the anti-Arab road.”
Curve ball for center-left
The announcement could throw an unexpected wrench in plans for politicians on the left and center of Israel’s political spectrum, whom many expected to form a coalition that could potentially trump Netanyahu at the polls.
But Netanyahu’s surprise move doesn’t necessarily seal his victory, since Mr. Lieberman’s outspoken stances on issues such as Israeli Arabs could be a turn-off for voters who might otherwise have supported the prime minister’s party.
“It would seem that Netanyahu is gambling on not losing too many votes to the center, even though Lieberman is perceived by the center as very far right-wing, even by some … as racist and they would be very loathe to vote for him,” Susser says. “But he’s banking on the fact that this huge, big, new alliance will actually attract voters and show up the left as being very fragmented and not fit to the lead the country.”
Netanyahu has few potential challengers with the combination of experience and popularity that he enjoys. But the left and center have between them a handful of candidates who, if they joined together in a single coalition, could collectively mount a credible challenge against the prime minister. Former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who has experience but almost no political base at the moment, could, for example, join forces with Shelly Yachimovich of Labor, whose domestic policies have earned her solid support in certain circles.
“Netanyahu knew that the election's results weren't settled, and so he acted accordingly," said Ms. Yachimovich, according to Haaretz. She appealed to the "many Likud voters who lost a political home today. Tonight they found themselves in a scenario they could have imagined in their worst nightmares – in a party headed by [Avigdor] Lieberman."
Whole bigger than the sum of its parts?
Whether Likud’s merger with Yisrael Beytenu will strengthen its position vis-à-vis the center is an open question.
“It’s really a big question over the numerical advantage of running together,” says Tamar Hermann, a public opinion expert with the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem. “Still, it may discourage all other parties in the system. Because again, this would come out as the guaranteed winner and the rest is like kid’s stuff.”
The merger could also lead to complacency among the core voters of Likud and Yisrael Beytenu, leading to lower turnout.
“There is another option that this united party will be considered as the winning party with no challengers around,” says Prof. Hermann, who says that could lead voters to stay home, especially if it is rainy and cold on election day. “This may bring its voters to be less enthusiastic about voting because they will feel [victory] is already in their pocket.”