In a dramatic political move, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has announced that his Likud party will run jointly in the upcoming Israeli election with the more hawkish Yisrael Beitenu, a merger that could make Netanyahu leader of one of the largest factions the Israeli parliament has seen in decades.
Analysts immediately dubbed the agreement a political bombshell and a blow for the center and left-wing parties. But they also said it carried risks for Netanyahu, including the possibility that centrist voters might be alienated by the more hardline positions of Yisrael Beitenu’s leader, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, especially when it comes to peacemaking with the Palestinians.
Netanyahu had already been widely expected to win the election, which is scheduled for January 22. Polls show his coalition of right-wing and religious parties likely recapturing a solid majority in parliament in the vote.
But the merger could simplify the ordinarily complicated horse-trading that Israeli politicians engage in after elections in order to form a governing coalition.
“We stand before huge challenges and this is the time to unify forces for the sake of the state of Israel,” Netanyahu said at a news conference he held jointly with Lieberman Thursday evening.
Among the challenges, he mentioned Iran’s alleged development of nuclear weapons and the terrorist threat posed to Israel.
“It will give the government the power to lead Israel in the coming years.”
Lieberman, speaking from his own dais after Netanyahu’s remarks, said unifying forces on the right side of the political map was a matter of “national responsibility.”
The two men did not disclose the terms of their agreement. Israeli Channel 2 News said it included an understanding that Netanyahu would serve as prime minister for three years following the election, then hand over the reins to Lieberman for the final year of the term.
Journalists asked the two men about the report but they left the stage without responding to questions. Attempts to verify the report came up empty.
Channel 2 also reported that Arthur J. Finkelstein, the American political consultant who advised Netanyahu in previous elections, encouraged the Israeli leader to make the deal after polling showed the two parties would fare better if they ran jointly.
Likud currently has 27 seats in the 120-member Parliament while Yisrael Beitenu has 15 seats—for a total of 42. The last time a single party controlled that many seats was in 1992, when the Labor Party, led by Yitzhak Rabin, captured 44 seats.
The joint faction of Likud and Ysrael Beitenu would still need to recruit other partners for a governing majority. For Netanyahu, they would likely come from the pool of ultra-Orthodox parties and smaller nationalist factions that are to the right of Yisrael Beitenu.
Itzhak Galnoor, a political scientist at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, said Netanyahu seemed to have long-term aspirations with the maneuver.
“I think Netanyahu is thinking of hegemony for the right in the long run. I think that for someone who grew up when Israel was under the hegemony of the Labor Party, I would guess that this is the model he has in mind,” he told The Daily Beast.
The left-leaning Labor Party governed Israel almost unchallenged for 29 years, from the country’s founding in 1948 to 1977.
“He thinks that a right-wing party, in consolidation with the religious parties, can now dominate for a decade or more,” Galnoor said.
But he doubted Israelis would keep the right in power for that long. “Voters have become much more discriminating.”
The decision will put pressure on parties of the center and left to form a joint ticket as well. But Galnoor said the center-left seemed too fractured for a similar move.
The Labor Party appears to be Likud’s most formidable challenger. It is led by a relative newcomer to politics, Shelly Yachimovich, who stresses social-welfare issues over peacemaking with the Palestinians. Polls show her party getting around 20 seats in parliament.
Other centrist politicians are weighing a run, including former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and former foreign minister Tzippy Livni. Both are expected to announce their intentions next week.