It was another last-minute political bombshell from the Benjamin Netanyahu shock-factory. Without anyone expecting it, last Thursday the prime minister and his foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, astonished Israelis with the announcement that their parties – the ruling Likud Party and its coalition partner Yisrael Beiteinu – would run on a merged list in Israel's elections, scheduled for January 22 of next year.
The Likud Party, with 27 mandates (out of 120) in the Knesset, is the second-largest Israeli party today, and Yisrael Beiteinu, with 15 mandates, is the third-largest. The Likud has been a ruling party for many terms, and is supposedly a center-right party. Yisrael Beiteinu is more of a newcomer, a party whose support comes mainly from more recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Lead by straight-taker Lieberman and his notoriously aggressive style, it has the image of a hard-nosed right-wing party.
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On Monday evening, the stunned members of the Likud Central Committee gathered in Tel Aviv to vote on the deal Netanyahu and Lieberman had reached behind closed doors – and not all of them were happy about it. They were not certain if this move would get the party more seats in the Knesset, or less; the polls were conflicted, some projecting a number of mandates lower for the merged list of candidates than for the two parties running separately. And many of them thought that associating the Likud Party with Yisrael Beiteinu would be harmful to their party, that it would make it seem more radical than it really is – or worse, that it would make it more radical than it needs to be.
The reception for the newly created Likud Beiteinu, or, as many Israelis started calling the new creature, "Bieberman" (For Bibi and Lieberman), was somewhat strange: usually when such a bold political move is made, someone is supposed to gain and someone else is supposed to lose. But in this case, everybody seemed to think that they were gaining.
Netanyahu and Lieberman and their supporters said that their move would ensure that their party would be the largest one, hence there would be no doubt as to who should be leading the next coalition. So they were definitely happy.
Their many rivals though, seemed oddly happy too. Centrist parties like Yesh Atid are hoping that the merger will make centrist Likud voters reconsider their vote. Religious parties hope to gain some religious Likud voters who are made uneasy by the very secular image of Yisrael Beitenu. Parties on the left, the Labor Party being the leading voice among them, are hoping that the merger will make the choice clearer – an "us" vs. "them" type of choice (one that they hope will force enough Israelis into voting "us").
Oddly, this shared sense of gain might not be misplaced. That is, because the merger really did in some ways make the electoral choice easier. Likud Beitenu is a right-wing party. Netanyahu, considering the next government, is probably not thinking about a centrist coalition. Lieberman, considering the next coalition, isn't going to suddenly change his tune and betray his partnership with the Likud Party (four years ago Lieberman was a member of the center-left Olmert coalition). The lines are drawn. Easier to see, easier to vote.
But also tougher, unless someone emerges on the center-left who could replace Netanyahu - someone who could seriously claim to be prime minister material. The current leaders of the center and the left are all novices, deficient in real experience, lacking a proven record of decision-making and management. Lightweights. Some day they might be ready for the top job, but not now. Hence, a decision that was made tougher by the merger of the two main pieces of the center-right-right. If two weeks ago one could vote for a centrist or a leftist party, in the hope that it could moderate a coalition with the Likud at its center – or vote for the Likud Party in the hope that this time it would choose to form a more centrist coalition - now this hope is gone. And without it, many Israelis are left without a choice they find appealing.
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