Netanyahu, in fight for political life, may unify all parties on right

Netanyahu will reportedly try to merge all the right-wing parties to ensure he can counteract Liberman.

By David Isaac, World Israel News

Seeing the danger posed to his leadership by Israel Beiteinu’s Avigdor Liberman, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will strive to form a single address for right-wing voters this election, Ha’aretz reports on Monday.

In a Saturday interview with Israel’s Channel 13, Liberman said his party would work to form a unity government between Netanyahu’s Likud party and the opposition Blue and White party following the September 17 elections. His comments parted from past statements that he would only support a right-wing government.

Blue and White leaders praised Liberman’s remarks, saying they only wished they had come sooner, before new elections were called. However, they said a unity government could only come without Netanyahu. Blue and White focused much of its last campaign on attacking the prime minister, hoping to make political capital out of a strong dislike built up against him among certain segments of the public.

Liberman, who refused to join Netanyahu’s coalition over a military recruitment law involving the ultra-Orthodox, says he wants a unity government in order to block religious influence in the state. As he said during the coalition negotiations, “We’re for a Jewish state, we’re against a state of Jewish law.”

However, Ha’aretz says that Netanyahu believes that Liberman, like Blue and White’s leaders, wants to see him gone. “Netanyahu has seen more and more evidence” that Liberman “is working to take him out and that he has a thought-out, long-range plan the entire purpose of which is to separate Netanyahu from the prime minister’s chair,” the paper reports.

According to polls, Liberman will emerge even stronger after the September elections, gaining an additional three to four Knesset seats over the five he won last election. Liberman thus may again be the deciding factor. Only next time, with Liberman’s stated intention to support Blue and White in a unity government, Netanyahu may find himself removed from the premiership.

Netanyahu’s answer, Ha’aretz says, is to build a strong enough right-wing bloc so that Liberman won’t be needed to form a government. That means ensuring right-wing votes aren’t lost. In April, some 330,000 votes were lost to the right due to the failure of three parties to pass the electoral threshold: the New Right, Zehut and Gesher.

Netanyahu “will unify them into one party… He will tempt them with a variety of ministerial portfolios, positions and promises,” Ha’aretz says.

If Netanyahu wants to unify all the parties, he will have his work cut out for him. Although he succeeded last election in uniting the Otzma Yehudit (“Jewish Strength”) party with two other religious-Zionist parties, it will be more difficult to convince everyone to merge.

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Zehut leader Moshe Feiglin has already announced his refusal to merge with the United Right alliance, saying it’s a sectarian party and Zehut is above sectarianism. And there is bad blood between the Jewish Home party and New Right leader Naftali Bennett, who abandoned the Jewish Home last election to form his own party.

Netanyahu vulnerable

Another part of Netanyahu’s game plan will be to paint Liberman as left-wing in the hope of peeling off his party’s traditionally conservative voters. On May 29, as the deadline ran out on forming a coalition, Netanyahu declared Liberman “part of the left now.”

Similarly, following Liberman’s call for a unity government, the Likud reacted sharply: “The cat is out of the bag. Liberman said explicitly that he’s prepared to go with [Blue and White leaders Yair] Lapid and [Benny] Gantz and to force a left-wing government.”

Netanyahu, however, is vulnerable to counterattack on this score. Liberman quickly pointed out that Netanyahu reached out to Labor party leader Avi Gabbay to join his government as coalition talks stalled. In an interview with Yediot Ahronot, Liberman said, “The time has come for Netanyahu to stop whining. He himself carried out negotiations with Avi Gabbay and tired to establish a government with [Labor’s] Shelly Yachimovich and Stav Shaffir, and now he’s complaining that we want a unity government?”

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Last week, Netanyahu also received criticism from right-wing pundits over his willingness to join forces with Labor leaders. “Without apologizing and not even a tingling of discomfort, he was on his way to give a resounding slap in the face to the voters of the national camp he leads,” right-wing columnist and radio personality Kalman Liebskind wrote in Ma’ariv on June 9.