Israel's prime minister has announced he will join forces with his hard-line foreign minister in upcoming elections, instantly cementing a hawkish new bloc that now appears poised to lead the country.
The deal between Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's Likud Party and Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu makes the new ticket the clear front-runner in January's poll.
"We are facing great challenges and this is the time to unite forces for the sake of Israel," Netanyahu said at a news conference. "Therefore Likud and Yisrael Beitenu will run together on the same ticket in the next elections."
"We are asking for a mandate from the public to lead Israel against security threats, above all preventing Iran from arming itself with nuclear weapons and the struggle against terror," he said.
The arrangement could also give the ultranationalist foreign minister, a staunch opponent of concessions to the Palestinians, a major say in any future peace efforts.
It also raises speculation that centrist opposition parties will be compelled to come together as well.
'Moderate voters' try to unite
Israelis vote for political parties, not individual candidates. The leader of the bloc with the most seats in the 120-member parliament usually serves as prime minister of a coalition government.
Likud has been leading in opinion polls, but the resurgent Labour Party has been making gains by criticising the outgoing government's record on economic and social issues.
Analysts suggested Netanyahu took Thursday's step in order to head off the possibility of a broad centrist bloc led by Labour. Together with Yisrael Beitenu, Likud could control more than 40 parliamentary seats, based on recent polls, making it roughly twice as large as Labour.
But polls have suggested that even with a center-left alliance, Netanyahu's bloc would still win.
Opposition lawmakers said the new alliance created an extremist party opposed to peace that would alienate many moderate voters.
Labour's leader, Shelly Yachimovich, urged her centrist rivals to rally behind her.
"I call on all the centrist forces in the Israeli political map to join with Labour ... to not let the Lieberman-Netanyahu government rule," she said.
Yachimovich called Netanyahu's new coalition "racist" and called on "moderate voters on the right" to join Labour.
Opposition leader Shaul Mofaz of the Kadima party also called for the centre party to unite, dubbing Netanyahu's hawkish union "a wake-up call".
'Netanyahu's number two'
Israel Radio political analyst Hanan Kristal said Netanyahu's move would guarantee victory for the new bloc in the upcoming election. He said Likud might lose some moderate voters but they would be few.
"The big question now is about Lieberman, now that he is Netanyahu's number two," Kristal said. "Will he be the defence minister or deputy prime minister? Or remain foreign minister?"
Lieberman, who once worked as a bar bouncer, immigrated to Israel in 1978 from Moldova in the former Soviet Union.
He became a national figure in 1996 as a top aide to Netanyahu during his previous term as prime minister.
He later quit Netanyahu's Likud party and was elected to parliament in 1999 as head of Yisrael Beitenu (Israel Our Home), a secular hawkish party he established to represent the more than 1 million immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
His party has gained strength since then and was the third largest in the 2009 elections, drawing many votes from non-Russian Israelis as well as his traditional base.
Lieberman is known for inflammatory rhetoric that has at times agitated his partners in government. He has called for executing Israeli Arab lawmakers who met with leaders of the militant group Hamas.
More recently, Lieberman pushed a series of legislative proposals that critics said were anti-Arab, including a failed attempt to require Israelis to sign a loyalty oath or have their citizenship revoked.
He embarrassed Netanyahu in the past by expressing contrasting views to that of the government, including scepticism over the chances of reaching peace with the Palestinians.
Lieberman has called the Palestinian president an "obstacle to peace", and urged his removal so that peace talks that collapsed in 2008 could be revived.