A possible merger of Likud and Habayit Hayehudi parties, which is seen as a likely political scenario, is alarming the Zionist Camp, as such a move is expected to clinch the right wing’s election victory.
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“Everyone believes such a merger will determine the election outcome. [Likud leader Benjamin] Netanyahu would head a party of 40 Knesset seats, while [Labor head Isaac] Herzog would hardly get 30. That would mean a clear victory,” a senior Likud source said Wednesday.
“I hear rumors of a merger between [Habayit Hayehudi head Naftali] Bennett and Bibi [Netanyahu]. This will finally bring it home to everyone that Bibi and Bennett and [Orit] Strock are one and the same,” Herzog said Wednesday.
“Such a merger will make the elections very clear-cut – either the Zionist Camp or the extreme right,” he said.
However, Labor sources said the party is keeping a low profile until the lists are submitted next Thursday to underscore its apparent advantage over Likud in the polls, for fear it would spur Likud to join with Bennett. This is also why the Zionist Camp hasn’t launched its election campaign yet.
The joint Zionist Camp list, with Tzipi Livni’s candidates in reserved slots, will be presented to Labor’s convention members on Sunday.
The parties have until Thursday to submit their final tickets for the March elections.
After Likud and Habayit Hayehudi, the most likely merger is between Yesh Atid and Kulanu, to form a centrist bloc. A merger between the Zionist Camp and Yesh Atid or Kulanu is also possible. A fourth option is a merger of the Zionist Camp with Meretz.
The three Arab parties, Hadash, Balad and United Arab List-Ta’al must also decide by next Thursday whether to run on a joint list or two separate ones, to increase their chances of making it into the Knesset.
“At the moment there’s no political big bang in the offing,” a political source said. “It’s too early to say there are serious talks or an attempt to advance such a dramatic move before the lists are submitted.”
Labor and Likud must convene their central committees to approve a merger, so a decision on such a move must be made by early next week. A Likud source said Wednesday that the party’s central committee could sabotage the move, in view of the failure of the merger with Yisrael Beiteinu two years ago.
Netanyahu and Herzog both want to head the largest faction after the elections, in the hope the president will assign the leader of the largest Knesset faction to form the next government. By law, the president isn’t obligated to do so.
A Likud source said that while a merger enlarges the right-wing bloc, “it will drive voters away from Likud and Habayit Hayehudi. Obviously, moderate Likud supporters don’t want to vote for candidates like Bezalel Smotrich, Orit Strock or Moti Yogev [extremist candidates on Habayit Hayehudi’s ticket].”
A survey conducted by the Knesset TV Channel and the Panels Politics institute confirms these assumptions. The survey released Wednesday finds that a joint Likud-Habayit Hayehudi list will increase the two parties’ total number of Knesset seats to 40, only one more than running separately, which would bring Likud 23 Knesset seats and Habayit Hayehudi 16.
However, the merger would increase the right bloc by two Knesset seats, because it strengthens Eli Yishai’s rightist party, which is expected to get six Knesset seats in this scenario.
“Herzog is no sucker. If there’s a merger of right-wing parties he may try in the short time he has left to persuade [Yesh Atid head] Yair Lapid or [Kulanu head] Moshe Kahlon to join him, as a preventive step that secures him a significant majority even before the elections,” a Likud source said Wednesday.
“We’re also taking into consideration that Kahlon and Lapid join forces, despite everything, and set up a real centrist bloc.”
Lapid has not denied in recent days that he was negotiating with Kahlon over joining forces. Kahlon however said in private conversations that a merger with Likud was impossible, due to ideological differences.
The Zionist Camp is counting on 30 Knesset seats. Meretz prefers to run separately at this point, despite the risk that broad support for the Zionist Camp might reduce Meretz’s power so that it doesn’t pass the electoral threshold.
“If Meretz joins our ticket, moderate right-wing voters will be driven away and we won’t be able to expand the bloc,” a Labor source said.
Meretz has recently launched a campaign against the Zionist Camp leaders. “Lieberman is calling for a transfer of close to 700,000 Arab Israelis, and Herzog and Livni are keeping mum,” Meretz leader Zahava Gal-On said in a campaign speech a few days ago. “We all desperately want to replace Netanyahu, but the price cannot be giving up our principles.”