It might be a product of one politician’s panicky impulsiveness. Or it may be a shrewd bet that Israel’s steady drift to the political right has passed a crucial threshold. Either way, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s startling decision to link his center-right Likud party with the Russo-phile, rightist Yisrael Beiteinu party of his foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has shaken up an Israeli election campaign just as it’s getting underway.
Netanyahu and Lieberman made their joint announcement on Thursday, amid a flurry of developments that stood to complicate the incumbent’s presumed glide path to re-election. Polls that only weeks ago showed Netanyahu alone in a field of dwarves, lately showed that his party – and in a parliamentary system, ballots are cast for parties, not people — faced erosion from both the right and the left. On the right, the charismatic ultra-Orthodox politician Aryeh Deri returned to the Shas Party, after serving 22 months in prison for taking bribes, and a decade away from politics. Deri immediately recast the agenda at Shas, which represents religious Jews from North Africa and the Middle East, to emphasize economic justice as the core domestic issue in the campaign, one on which Netanyahu is considered most vulnerable.
At the same time, pollsters found that Likud would finish behind a theoretical “super-party” that consolidated all the major candidates associated with the Israeli center: Tzipi Livni and Shaul Mofaz of the eviscerated Kadima party, a former journalist named Yair Lapid, and, at the top of the ticket, Ehud Olmert, the former prime minister driven from office in 2008 by corruption charges. Olmert mostly beat the rap in July but a few charges remain, and enough of a cloud to prevent him from announcing a return to politics – so far, at least.
Netanyahu’s move sized up as a pre-emptive strike. It’s a ballot alliance – joining not the two parties themselves, but their candidates, who will appear on a single electoral list in January’s election. The arrangement stands to benefit Netanyahu personally, polling and analysts agree. Even if Likud and Israel Beiteinu gather fewer total votes as a single list than they might have separately, the amount will surely be more than the Likud would have gained alone, and hence all but assures Netanyahu will emerge from the election atop the faction with the largest number of seats in the Knesset, likely assuring he will return as prime minister.
What’s far from clear, however, is whether what’s good for Bibi is all that great for either party. In embracing Lieberman, Netanyahu has hitched his fortunes to starkly polarizing figure, an admirer of Vladimir Putin whose previous campaigns were striking for racist appeals targeting Israel’s own Palestinians, who account for 20% of the population. “There’s no question that in the old days the founders of the Likud would never have gone anywhere near someone like Lieberman,” Bradley Burston, an editor at the liberal daily Haaretz, tells TIME. “They would’ve seen him as someone that could infect the party with all kinds of anti-democratic elements that they were determined to, at least, formally disavow.
“Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu are two very different tribes,” Burston notes. “Likud has this very very long history, emotionally powerful to those who are loyalists, the first party of the right, and a home, with this very strong emphasis on democracy, in the sort of European sense. There’s also this sense of observant Jews being welcome, and Jews of northern African descent in particular being very welcome, in terms of being the core. And that puts them and Yisrael Beiteinu in direct conflict, in a number of ways. They’re this ‘party of the pork-eating Russians.’ You have that kind of grumbling.”
Likud in fact came into existence as an blending of right-wing parties, including the Herut faction headed by Menachem Begin. In Hebrew, the word itself, Likud, means “consolidation.” But Avraham Diskin, a political scientist at Hebrew University, says the alliance with Yisrael Beiteinu – “Israel Is Our Home” — risks losing three groups who formerly voted Likud. First and most important are centrists who will be turned off by Lieberman’s proudly right wing positions and extremist tenor, especially in campaigns. Next, Diskin says, come religious Jews of Sephardic origins, who may turn to Shas when faced with Lieberman’s antipathy to ultra-Orthodox rabbis, whose strict rules, barring civil marriage, for instance, are regarded by largely secular Russian immigrants as an impediment to their assimilation in Israeli society. “The extreme right wingers might be more satisfied,”Diskin says, “but settlers who are religious are not voting for Lieberman, though some do vote for Likud. So they’re hesitant.”
At the same time, some Yisrael Beiteinu voters don’t care for Netanyahu, whose alliances with ultra-Orthodox parties, including Shas, has protected their nemesis. “This merger is a mistake because it repels voters,” Likud minister Michael Eitan told reporters. “Some of Lieberman’s voters don’t like Netanyahu and some Likud voters don’t like Lieberman. Running separately could have led to a larger bloc after the election.”
Eitan was trying to derail the alliance, which must be approved by the Likud central committee at a meeting Monday night. (Yisrael Beintein, which Lieberman created, is run more as his personal fiefdom.) Analysts say if the voting were secret, the alliance might be voted down, so risky does the deal seem to everyone except Netanyahu and Lieberman — who is guaranteed a senior ministry, possibly even defense. Livni called the prospect of Lieberman as defense minster “an existential threat to the state of Israel.”
Diskin says that, given Netanyahu’s previous tacks to the center, the government that emerges from the Jan. 22 ballot will likely be moderate. He figures the alliance with Lieberman is driven less by ideology than by fear of being left behind. Twice in the last decade, Yisrael Beiteinu has thrown in with centrist parties to form governments, and the polls showing the electoral potential of a unified centrist bloc may have unnerved the prime minister, the professor says. “I think Netanyahu got afraid that Lieberman would jump over his party and make a deal with a center-left coalition, like he did before,” says Diskin. “So he got panicked, and he made a risky move. A stupid move.”