Labor party leader Isaac Herzog and Hatnua leader Tzipi Livni announced a merger on Wednesday night, in a bid to establish a large center-left political bloc and remove Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the March 2015 elections. Under the union agreement, the two will share the prime ministership on rotation, with Herzog as prime minister the first two years and Livni the last two years, should they win the upcoming elections.
The merger had been widely rumored in recent days; the decision to “rotate” the prime ministership if they win the elections was a political bombshell. Herzog’s Labor party is far stronger than Livni’s Hatnua in the polls, and has a rich history of leading Israel for decades. Arithmetically, the agreement to rotate the prime ministership disproportionately benefits Livni. Herzog argued, however, that it would benefit all Israelis by boosting the prospects of defeating Netanyahu.
“This is a different model of leadership,” said Herzog, “a model for joint action… working together for the success of the state and the flourishing of its citizens…”
“You have to put the egos aside,” he said, predicting that he would serve two years as Israel’s next prime minister, with Livni then taking over for the rest of the term.
“It can unify the entire Zionist camp and put an end to the leadership of the extreme right,” said Livni.
There is a precedent for prime ministerial rotation in Israel. Labor’s Shimon Peres and Likud’s Yitzhak Shamir led the country in that format between 1984 and 1988.
The two party leaders announced the decision in a joint press conference Wednesday night, putting an end to the various rumors on whether Livni would choose an alliance with Herzog over Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid, who was also courting the former justice minister. In these fast-moving early days of the election campaign, Yesh Atid has reportedly been in contact, meanwhile, with former Likud minister Moshe Kahlon’s nascent party on some kind of centrist partnership. While the Herzog-Livni merger will be hard-pressed to attract right-wing voters, Yesh Atid and Kahlon potentially have broader appeal.
“We must join forces, because only together we will win,” Herzog said Wednesday night, as he and Livni stood side by side, against a large background sign proclaiming, “Winning Together: The Zionist Camp.” They did not announce a new name for their merged parties.
“Tzipi and I will offer you, the citizens of Israel, a new hope and a better future, a hope for a government that is involved, caring, and serious, [a government] that takes much more initiative, and talks less,” Herzog said.
He said the Israeli public had “lost hope” after six years of Netanyahu’s government, charging that its “lousy policies” had left Israel deteriorating “in all aspects in recent years — social, economic, security and diplomatic.”
He and Livni were offering “another approach, via a unifying of the Zionist camp — working together for the common good of the state and the people.”
If elected, they would provide “security instead of fear,” he promised, “dialogue instead of hatred.” Their government would replace Israel’s international isolation with regional cooperation.
He invoked former prime ministers David Ben-Gurion, Menachem Begin (Livni started her political career in Begin’s Likud) and Yitzhak Rabin, and said he and Livni would run the country according to the principles of the Declaration of Independence, to ensure “a Jewish and democratic Israel,” with “equality to all its citizens.”
Livni, for her part, hailed Herzog as the man “who can and should be Israel’s next prime minister,” and said their new joint list presented Israel with a viable alternative to the right wing parties. The partnership “can unify the entire Zionist camp and put an end to the leadership of the extreme right,” she said.
“We need to mobilize together, Herzog is a worthy person, talented and full of values, and he will be an excellent prime minister. I believe in that wholeheartedly, and this belief is the basis of our partnership,” she said.
“We set up a joint list, a list that symbolizes a deep understanding that deals with real threats which Israel and Zionism face, and this requires putting aside the enmity and uniting the true Zionist camp, to work together for the citizens of the state and against the radical right wing.”
“Extremists took over every part of the Likud, which was once my home, and have turned our country into an isolated one, closed off and even alienating to its citizens,” she said. “These elections are an historic opportunity to return Israel to itself and reclaim our country.”
Taking a series of bitter swipes at Netanyahu, the former justice minister said she had been forced week after week in the outgoing coalition to block destructive legislation presented to serve narrow, right-wing goals. She said she and Herzog know how to tackle terrorism rather than just “talk about terrorism and write books about it.”
An Israel under their joint leadership would speak to regional leaders, unite the country, and “won’t be scared” by domestic political rivalries or “every ill wind” blowing through the Middle East.
Smiling at times, but sounding emotional at others, she said the partnership with Herzog was “a union born of love for this country and its people,” and that “the friendship between us was the key to this merger… We urge all those who share this vision to join us.”
Asked if they would sit in a government with Netanyahu, Herzog said the question was irrelevant since he intended to be prime minister. Said Livni, “I don’t intend to go through that experience again.”
Herzog is understood to have agreed to place Livni in the second place on the joint party list, as well as giving Hatnua the 6th, 21st and 25th slots on the joint list. The 6th slot was earmarked for former environment minister Amir Peretz.
Labor MK Shelly Yachimovich hailed the merger deal, saying: “From this evening, it’s clear: the Netanyahu era is over.” The former Labor leader called the alliance “important and intelligent,” and one which “ushers in a fierce spirit of hope.”
A Likud statement said it was now clear that the March 17 elections would be between “the left” of Herzog and Livni and the “national camp” led by Likud. Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz (Likud) recalled that Livni had proposed a rotation arrangement with Netanyahu after the 2009 elections, when the Kadima party she then headed won 29 seats to Likud’s 28, but was rebuffed. “It’s been quite an entertaining evening,” Steinitz said, dismissing the notion that the Labor-Hatnua merger was a game-changer.
A Channel 10 poll on Tuesday had indicated Labor could become the Knesset’s largest party if it joined with Livni’s Hatnua and Shaul Mofaz’s Kadima party, winning 22 seats compared to Likud’s projected 20. However, the survey indicated that the Israeli right would still have an easier time building a coalition than the left.
The Channel 10 survey also saw 22 percent of respondents citing Herzog as their preferred prime minister, with Netanyahu just one point ahead at 23%. Previous polls have shown Netanyahu well clear of potential prime ministerial rivals.