Dramatic development: Nearly six months after shocking the political system by forming a unity government with Kadima,
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
has thrown another curve ball and joined forces with Avigdor Lieberman
ahead of the upcoming elections.
In a press conference held Thursday evening, the two men announced they were uniting the Likud
and Yisrael Beiteinu
under one ticket.
"We shall ask the public for a mandate to lead Israel
with force. It will empower the government, it will empower the prime minister and therefore the state. I hope to win the public's trust again and to get a clear mandate that will allow me to focus on what is important," Netanyahu said.
Netanyahu and Lieberman (Photo: Gil Yohanan)
"Joining forces will give us the power to defend Israel and generate social and economic change," he added. The two refused to take questions, did not elaborate on the make-up of the new list and did not address the possibility of a rotation.
"We face tremendous challenges and this is the time to join forces for the State of Israel's sake. That is why the Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu will run together under one ticket in the next Knesset election."
'Merger will empower government' (Photo: Gil Yohanan)
The prime minister named the challenges the new government will face including the Iranian nuclear program and the anti-terror campaign.
"There is still so much to do, primarily lowering the cost of living. After we stabilized Israel's economy in the wake of the ongoing global crisis, we can continue to focus on reducing the cost of living. This is the time to project power vis-à-vis our enemies as well as internal unity. A prime minister in Israel needs great power and unity."
Netanyahu was followed by Lieberman, who said: "The merger is a combination of experience, force and unity. This is what Israel's citizens expect. Given the challenges, we need national responsibility. Not shreds of the latest trendy parties which vanish after one term."
Lieberman said he was confident the newly unified party could win the election. "I have no doubt as to the Israeli public's reaction and I have no doubt we will meet all of the expectations we created. We will meet those promises and will do it better than the previous administration."
The dramatic decision was made after secret negotiations between the two men with senior officials from both parties left out of the loop.
The move is aimed at creating the largest list in the Knesset elections thus guaranteeing that Netanyahu will form the next government.
The Likud Central Committee is set to convene on Tuesday to ratify the agreement.
Recent polls have indicated a drop in Likud support rates with the party winning only 24-25 Knesset seats. A senior party official said that Netanyahu was worried that "Lieberman would run away after the election and therefore decided on an instant merger."
A poll conducted by strategic advisor Arthur Finkelstein, who works with Yisrael Beiteinu, also showed an downward turn for the Likud.
Ministers Benny Begin and Dan Meridor refused to comment on the merger while Minister Gideon Sa'ar welcomed the news.
Minister Michael Eitan demanded that the Likud Central Committee reject the union and said, "If it happens, this agreement will eliminate the Likud and be a threat to Israeli democracy."
Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin told Netanyahu upon hearing the news that the move will contribute to the government's stability in the long run and will help strengthen governance.
Sources close to Lieberman also praised the move. "This totally changes the political map. We will have one big ruling party and another one or two factions joining the government. It’s an historic step."
Netanyahu wanted instant merger (Photo: Noam Moskowitz)
Shortly after the press conference, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid
rejected the possibility of a merger between the left-center parties. "The merger sheds light on the current political map – Netanyahu has aligned himself with the radical Right, (Shelly) Yachimovich went way left and the decent moderate Israeli majority cannot identify with yesterday's parties," he said.
Yachimovich on her part has called the centrists to join forces under her leadership and stressed she will not join a government headed by Netanyahu and Lieberman.
Meanwhile, Channel 2 commentator Amnon Abramovich reported that Netanyahu and Lieberman agreed on a rotation on the prime minister's seat with the former serving for three years and the latter for one year. Both parties denied the report.
Yuval Karni contributed to this report