Biberman fever
Hebrew media review

Biberman fever

Netanyahu and Liberman merge party lists, dropping a bombshell on Israeli elections

Ilan Ben Zion, a reporter at the Associated Press, is a former news editor at The Times of Israel. He holds a Masters degree in Diplomacy from Tel Aviv University and an Honors Bachelors degree from the University of Toronto in Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations, Jewish Studies, and English.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman caused a big splash in a small pool with their announcement on Thursday of the formation of a united party list for the upcoming elections.

In plain English? On January 22 there will be no Likud or Yisrael Beytenu parties at the ballot box, just “Likud-Beytenu” — a merged party whose members will divvy up the seats they win in the elections.

Israel Hayom calls the move a “political earthquake” and charges that Liberman will play second fiddle to Netanyahu in the next government. Yedioth Ahronoth reports that the back-room deal was made by Netanyahu and Liberman in utmost secrecy over the past several weeks, and that only the PM and FM knew of it until the last moment. Maariv writes that the merger was conceived while the two leaders were in New York City at the United Nations. Their agreement was unwritten, writes Yedioth. Only once it was honed to the finest detail did the two announce the list merger.

Yedioth Ahronoth describes the arrangement of the united list as a zipper — after Netanyahu and Liberman’s No. 1 and No. 2 spots on the list, the remaining (projected) 45 seats will be divided between the two factions in a methodic fashion. No. 3 and No. 4 on the list will be Likud members, and No. 5 will be a Yisrael Beytenu representative, and so on down the line.

According to reports, the impetus for forming the new super-party was a poll conducted by Liberman’s political adviser Arthur Finkelstein, which found that a party headed by former Kadima leaders Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni would win 20-22 seats in the upcoming elections, and that Yisrael Beytenu and Likud, not united, would only gain one seat. But if the two right-wing parties joined forces, they could stand to win as many as 48 seats, a potential net gain of 6 seats.

With the merger, “Olmert’s running in the elections has become irrelevant. Olmert has become irrelevant,” Maariv quotes a source close to the unity deal saying.

Haaretz quotes a source within the Likud saying the merger is expected to halt the slide that both parties were experiencing in recent polls, but there’s apprehension that Yisrael Beytenu’s presence may drive religious voters to side with Shas in the coming elections.

The paper quotes Yisrael Beytenu Chairwoman Faina Kirschenbaum praising the move, but saying that it is still in its nascent stages and that nothing is completed as yet. Yedioth Ahronoth also reports that the Likud Central Committee must approve the deal when it meets next week. Israel Hayom quotes Likud’s Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar praising the deal as “a move [that will] hone the argument in the elections system between the right and left wings.”

Yossi Verter writes in Haaretz that the decision to unite under a single list “reinforced [Netanyahu and Liberman’s] positions in the 19th Knesset as prime minister and foreign minister (perhaps as finance minister, if Liberman insists) and without a rotational premiership.” According to Haaretz, “Likud-Beytenu” is expected to be “significantly larger than the rest” and will be able to manage coalition negotiations without being squeezed by smaller parties.

Verter argues that the threat of Olmert returning to politics drove the two parties together. Netanyahu feared losing seats to a resurgent Olmert, who would contend with Likud for voters, and Liberman feared his party becoming inconsequential with the emergence of Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, an Aryeh Deri-led Shas party, and a potential Olmert-Livni party, according to Haaretz.

Nahum Barnea argues in Yedioth that the name of Netanyahu’s game is political survival at any cost, for he fears political instability and losing control of his government once again (as he did in ’99). His political expediency translates into alliances with anyone: “If he needs [Kadima party leader Shaul] Mofaz, it’ll be Mofaz; if he needs [United Torah Judaism leader Moshe] Gafni, it’ll be Gafni. It he needs Liberman, it’ll be Liberman. Survival is the name of the game.”

With this merger, however, Barnea asks, “Who swallows whom?” Does Netanyahu swallow Liberman or vice versa? Barnea says Liberman will dominate Likud, for he is the “stronger,” “hungrier, dangerous” side of the equation, whose political ideology smacks of “Russian Fascism,” anti-Liberalism, and whose political icon is Putin, not Herzl.

Israel Hayom pundit Ariel Schmidtberg says that the wake-up call made by the Liberman-Netanyahu announcement yesterday created “a clear ideological dichotomy encompassing world views” in the upcoming elections. It is now a right-versus-left competition, and though there will be smaller parties, they will be of less consequence. It’s the end, he says, of the era of “50 shades of gray” in Israeli politics.

Dependence on religious parties will disappear, Schmidtberg says, and Shas will no longer be the kingmaker party. “Only a broad union of center and left parties can be an alternative… and at the moment it’s hard to imagine.”

The magnitude of the “political earthquake” unleashed on Israeli politics had immediate aftershocks that barely made the news. Israel Hayom reports that Kadima party members are already jumping ship, either to “Likud-Beytenu” or the Labor Party. Yedioth Ahronoth reports that Shas leader Aryeh Deri expects to gain from Netanyahu’s power play, even though Haaretz calls it “a slap in the face to the ultra-Orthodox parties.”

The one person who could rain on Netanyahu and Liberman’s parade, Maariv reminds readers, is Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein. In the coming weeks Weinstein will announce whether he will charge Liberman and, if so, with what crimes. If charged, Liberman’s position in the government could be compromised.

The bombshell announcement about “Likud-Beytenu” eclipsed Thursday’s top story — alleged Israeli bombs dropped on Khartoum. Haaretz informs readers that Sudan lodged a complaint with the United Nations Security Council over the incident. Israel Hayom quotes a Reuters report that claims an Israeli drone bombed a Sudanese weapons convoy last month as well.

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