Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu canceled a trip to Moscow to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday because of assessments that his main rival, Benny Gantz, will join forces with Yesh Atid's Yair Lapid ahead of the election, sources in Likud said Wednesday.
Netanyahu and Putin will speak on the phone on Thursday morning and a new date for a face-to-face meeting will be set, according to a diplomatic source. A Kremlin aide confirmed that Netanyahu canceled the meeting due to domestic political affairs, Russian media reported.
Thursday's meeting was meant to focus on regional affairs, the situation in Syria and the strengthening of the security coordination. It would have been the first time the two leaders met in Moscow since the downing of the Russian spy plane in Syria in September 2018.
After the incident, which Russia blamed on Israel, Netanyahu's bureau unsuccessfully attempted to organize a meeting with Putin during the Paris Peace Forum in November. According to reports from Russia, Putin declined to meet Netanyahu at the forum.
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The two ended up holding several talks on the sidelines of the event, which was hosted by French President Emmanuel Macron.
Wednesday's development came a day after Gantz called on Lapid to meet with him "tonight" to discuss potentially joining forces. Gantz made the appeal while launching the election slate of his party, Hosen L'Yisrael.
During the address – his second major campaign speech – Gantz launched a fierce attack against Netanyahu, describing the prime minister as the "sole ruler" of Israel's ruling party for the past decade "through incitement, deception and fearmongering."
In other political news Wednesday, the far-right party Otzma Yehudit – which is led by followers of the racist Rabbi Meir Kahane – agreed to a merger with Habayit Hayehudi and the National Union, a day before the Thursday deadline to formally register party rosters.
The announcement, which received the blessing of right-wing rabbis affiliated with the party's leadership, followed pressure by Netanyahu on National Union chairman Bezalel Smotrich and his Habayit Hayehudi counterpart Rafi Peretz to unite with the far right.
Both parties, whose leaders are due to meet later on Wednesday, still have to agree to finalize the union. Hawkish Smotrich had been thus far reluctant to join forces with Otzma Yehudit, fearing its far-right image would keep voters away. Habayit Hayehudi officials, led by MK Moti Yogev, are urging Peretz not to approve the agreement.
Meanwhile, Gesher party head Orli Levi-Abekasis announced Wednesday night that her party would run independently for Knesset and not join up with Benny Gantz’s Hosen L’Yisrael as had been widely anticipated, saying Gantz did not uphold agreements that had been reached with him.