Israel’s primary centrist challengers to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have announced they are joining forces, a dramatic move that has created the first credible alternative to Netanyahu’s decade-long rule.
Retired military chief Benny Gantz of the Resilience party and ex-finance minister Yair Lapid, head of the Yesh Atid party, said they would present a joint list for the upcoming Israeli elections that “will constitute the new Israeli ruling party”.
In a joint statement, the two said they were “motivated by national responsibility”.
“The new ruling party will bring forth a cadre of security and social leaders to ensure Israel’s security and to reconnect its people and heal the divide within Israeli society,” a statement from Yesh Atid said.
Recent polls suggest that together, the two could surpass Netanyahu’s ruling Likud to become Israel’s largest faction after the April 9 vote.
Under their unity arrangement, the two agreed to a rotation leadership should they come to power, under which Gantz would first serve as prime minister and would then later be replaced by Lapid.
Following them in the joint list would be a pair of other former military chiefs, Gabi Ashkenazi and Moshe Yaalon.
Even if the joint list surpasses Likud at the ballot box, it is not guaranteed to form the next government unless it can garner a parliamentary majority with other parties.
Since Israel’s creation in 1948, no one party has clinched an outright majority in the legislature and so post-election coalition-building has determined the composition of governments and who leads them.
Following news of the merger, Netanyahu’s Likud party issued a grim warning.
“The choice is clear: it’s either a left-wing Lapid-Gantz government with the support of the Arab parties, or a right-wing government led by Netanyahu,” a statement said.
Netanyahu, who is embroiled in multiple corruption allegations and faces a potential indictment, has taken a hard turn to the right in recent days to shore up his nationalistic base.
On Wednesday, Netanyahu helped negotiate the merger of two far-right parties, the pro-settler Jewish Home and the racist Jewish Power, that could give followers of the late anti-Arab rabbi, Meir Kahane, a stronger voice in politics.
Jewish Power is comprised of hardline religious nationalists who have cast themselves as successors to the banned Kahanist movement, which dreamed of turning Israel into a Jewish theocracy and advocated the forced removal of Palestinians.
Netanyahu’s courting of such forces drew sharp condemnations from much of the Israeli mainstream, with Gantz accusing him of losing touch “with his Zionism and with his dignity”.
Gantz has been the target of repeated barbs from the prime minister for being a “weak” leftist, which he had brushed off, drawing criticism that he lacked a fighting spirit.
But in a campaign speech in Tel Aviv on Tuesday night, Gantz hit back at Netanyahu, chiding him for his long years studying and working in the US, and accusing him of becoming “addicted to the pleasures of power, corruption and hedonism”.
The flurry of developments comes ahead of a Thursday night deadline for parties running for the April 9 parliamentary election to submit their lineups.