Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's two biggest rivals on the center-left announced early Thursday morning that they have decided to join forces and merge their parties, causing a political shakeup ahead of the Israeli ballot slated for April 9.
Hosen L'Yisrael chairman Benny Gantz and Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid have agreed to run on a joint ticket th
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at will be called "Blue and White." They have also enlisted former Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff, Lt. General (res.) Gabi Ashkenazi to join their unified party.
Ashkenazi was Gantz’s immediate predecessor at the most senior position in the Israeli military.
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The deal struck between the two party leaders means that Gantz would be prime minister for two and a half years, with Lapid becoming prime minister after that, if they form the next government. According to the agreement, while Gantz serves as prime minister, Lapid would receive the Foerign Ministry and former Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon would receive the Defense Ministry. Yesh Atid will receive 13 slots in the first 30 while Hosen L'Yisrael will receive 13 and Ya'alon's party Telem will receive three.
With Thursday being the deadline for the submission of party slates ahead of the April 9 Knesset election, Gantz met with Lapid on Wednesday in an attempt to reach an agreement to run on a joint ticket.
Number three on the merged roster is Ya'alon, who launched his own party when elections were initially announced but then joined Gantz.
The first 20 names on the "Blue and White" slate:
Benny Gantz, Yair Lapid, Moshe Ya'alon, Gabi Ashkenazi, Avi Nissenkorn, Meir Cohen, Miki Haimovich, Ofer Shelah, Yoaz Hendel, Orna Barbivai, Michael Biton, Chili Tropper, Yael German, Zvi Hauser, Orit Farkash-Hacohen, Karin Elharrar, Meirav Cohen, Yoel Razvozov, Asaf Zamir, Izhar Shay.
Polls published in recent weeks put Gantz as Netanyahu's main rival in the upcoming election, with some predicting that a joint Gantz-Lapid ticket could overtake Likud. The most recent poll on February 18 projects Hosen L’Yisrael with 18 seats, Yesh Atid with 12 and Likud with 30. A Gantz-Lapid merger was projected to get 32 seats and leave Likud with 31. Meanwhile, 36 percent of those polled said they preferred to see Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister, while 31 percent said Gantz.
Likud issued a statement Thursday morning blasting the union: "The choice is clear: It's either a left-wing government headed by Lapid and Gantz and supported by a bloc of Arab parties, or a right-wing government headed by Netanyahu."
Attempts to form a competing bloc on the right
The announcement on Thursday morning came less than 24 hours after the news that Israeli far-right party Habayit Hayehudi had accepted an offer from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to join forces with Otzma Yehudit, a right-wing party led by followers of racist Rabbi Meir Kahane, in exchange for the education and housing ministries in addition to two seats in the security cabinet.
Likud and Habayit Hayehudi said in a joint statement that during the election campaign the parties will not attack one another "but rather will strengthen one another for the sake of the right-wing victory."
Netanyahu said that "the next election is between a left-wing government headed by Lapid and Gantz and a right-wing government headed by me." Habayit Hayehudi, he said, "acted responsibly and managed to close ranks to ensure right-wing votes don't go to waste."
Otzma Yehudit is led by former lawmaker Michael Ben-Ari, together with Baruch Marzel, Itamar Ben-Gvir and Benzi Gopstein, all former disciples and political descendants of Meir Kahane – the infamous American-rabbi-turned-Knesset-member whose vitriolic racism against Arabs got his Kach party banned from running in the 1988 election.
In response to Hosen L'Yisrael and Yesh Atid's merger, Naftali Bennett, co-founder of the new right-wing party Hayamin Hehadash, called on Netanyahu to seek to forge a joint slate to include the prime minister's Likud, former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu, the Kulanu party of Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and the far-right Zehut party, which is headed by former Knesset member Moshe Feiglin.
"In light of the unity on the left, I call on Netanyahu to call on Feiglin, Kahlon and Lieberman to unite with them into a large bloc to avoid losing any seats," Bennett said, referring to the prospect that the parties indiividually might fall below the minimum four seats for Knesset representation. "This is the leadership that is required of him, and now he has to do this daring act."
Yisrael Beiteinu said the merger "lacked any agenda, ideology or care for the simple citizen" while Shas said the merger was "dangerous for Judaism." In a statement, the party said: "Gantz, who supports civil marriage and public transportation on Shabbat, has aligned with Lapid whose hatred for Judaism and for religious people is his job." Shas chairman Arye Dery vowed to not sit in Gantz's government.
Also, on Wednesday Gesher party chairwoman Orli Levi-Abekasis announced would run independently. Levi-Abekasis had met with Gantz to discuss the possibility of running together but later accused Gantz of violating their agreement.
"The idea of joining Gesher to Hosen L'Yisrael was presented to me by Mr. Gantz in our first meeting," Levi-Abekasis said, adding that the two had agreed on key social issues as an ideological basis for a partnership.
On Tuesday, Gantz and Lapid spoke by phone and called publicly for the talks between the parties to be intensified. Gantz addressed the topic of a possible joint ticket Tuesday at an event at which he announced his party's own slate.
“Immediately after this conference is over, I will call my friend Yair Lapid and ask him to meet me tonight. I will ask him again to put every other consideration aside, and together to put Israel before everything. You don’t weaken the opportunity for historic change over arguments about work assignments.”
Lapid later responded to Gantz by saying: “As I said yesterday on stage [at a party rally], we will turn over every stone, we will do everything so as not to miss a historic opportunity to change the government.”