Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman intend to announce the unification of their Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu parties, a Channel 2 report indicated on Thursday.
The move, which still has to pass in the Likud's convention, may be an attempt to overpower a possible unification between centrist and left-wing parties.
Commenting on the move on Thursday, the Likud's Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan said in an interview with Channel 2 that he was "aware of contacts on this issue. This isn't new," adding: "We must congratulate the agreement."
"This isn't a joint party, but a joint list," Erdan said, confirming that Netanyahu informed him of the move earlier in the day.
The planned unification could have a far-reaching influence on the makeup of Israel's next government, with estimates indicating that Netanyahu will commit to advance the civilian-secular agenda that dominates the Yisrael Beiteinu platform.
As part of the move, Netanyahu could even prefer to include other secular-minded parties, such as Yesh Atid, Kadima, and perhaps even Labor, over the long-running link to the Haredi parties.
Moreover, the unification may force the center-left parties to regroup – it's doubtful whether any one of the five parties could, on its own, challenge to the new "super-party."
Early indications show that Lieberman is expected to be positioned as the new party's number two, which could, as one senior Likud official said, threaten the position of the party's top ministers, such as Vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya'alon, Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar, and Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom.
The senior official, who talked on condition of anonymity, criticized the plan, saying: "What does Netanyahu think? That he's [Shas' spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef]? That he can dictate to us who we run with?"
"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," the Likud official added, saying that he thought "the joint list won't get together what Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu would have received if they went for elections as separate parties."
The senior official also said that, now that Likud has partnered with Lieberman, the party will be "committed to advancing such controversial issues such as the loyalty-citizenship bills, or civilian marriages."
"Why is Netanyahu going for this? Is he afraid of [Labor head Shelly] Yacimovich? Does he think he's going to lose the elections? It's a very problematic move, " the official added.
Minister Sa'ar however, congratulated the move, saying that it will "more clearly define the contest between left and right in the elections campaign."
"But above all, it has the potential to significantly bolster the ability to govern and deal with the immense challenges that Israel faces and bring about significant changes, such as the system of governance, and the equality of the civilian burden," Sa'ar said.
Last week, a Haaretz poll indicated that a new centrist party formed by Ehud Olmert, Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid would win more seats in the next Knesset than the Likud.
Were such a party to be formed, it would grab 25 seats, compared to Likud's 24. However, the survey also indicates that, whatever its composition, a right-wing bloc would not lose its Knesset majority.
This picture emerges as three sidelined politicians - Olmert, Livni and Aryeh Deri - weigh their own political futures amid the shake-up of the political map, with arrivals and departures from the scene on a daily basis.
According to the poll, even if former Prime Minister Olmert and former Kadima leader Livni join forces, or if Livni instead links up with Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich, they would face a right-wing bloc, a bloc of "natural partners," that would retain its majority - meaning that Netanyahu would remain prime minister after the January 22 elections. In a worst-case scenario from his perspective, he would just have to sweat a little more before reaching the finish line.
These are the conclusions that can be drawn from a special poll conducted on Tuesday for Haaretz by public-opinion company Dialog under the supervision of Tel Aviv University statistics professor Camil Fuchs.
The survey examined three possible scenarios regarding the composition of the next Knesset. The first involves no change in the constellation of political forces in parliament following the election. The second has Livni joining forces with Yacimovich in advance of the election, and the third has Olmert, who as prime minister headed Kadima, forming a new centrist party with Kadima, Livni and Yair Lapid's new Yesh Atid party. Under that third scenario, Aryeh Deri would resume his position as head of Shas, jointly with Ariel Atias and current party chairman (at least as these words are being written), Eli Yishai.
In the first case, in which the composition of political parties remains as it is today, the data show that the right wing would garner a 65-seat majority against a left-wing bloc of 55 seats. The results reveal that the departure of popular Likud minister Moshe Kahlon from the political scene, announced earlier this week, has in no way hurt his party's election prospects. For its part, the Labor Party is demonstrating continued stability as the second largest party, while any shift among the other parties is minor.
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