The Likud’s Central Committee on Monday overwhelmingly approved Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s deal with Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman for the Likud and Yisrael Beytenu to run on a joint list in January’s Knesset elections.

After a rousing speech, in which Netanyahu made clear that the two parties were not formally merging — just running for the Knesset together — and vowed that he and the Likud would govern Israel for years to come, the alliance was brought to a vote and approved by a mass brandishing of yellow tickets among the upbeat congregation of thousands at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds.

Only a smattering of committee members voted against the partnership, despite substantial grumbling in Likud ranks since the deal was announced last Thursday. An effort by Michael Eitan, the only Likud minister to publicly oppose the agreement, to have it voted upon in secret ballot, proved unsuccessful because Eitan failed to muster enough support for a secret ballot in time.

Eitan has complained that the alliance is flawed ideologically, because of the differences between the two parties, and practically, because it will cost them seats. Netanyahu, by contrast, insists it will guarantee that the Likud returns to power. Opinion polls in the past two days have produced mixed results, with some suggesting the partnered parties will gain on their current 42 seats (Likud has 27; Yisrael Beytenu has 15) and others predicting a slight fall, but all indicating that a Netanyahu-led bloc will secure a Knesset majority.

Eitan had also demanded to see the text of the agreement, but Netanyahu reportedly said there was no detailed written text.

Welcomed to the stage with warm applause, Netanyahu assured the committee members that “the Likud will remain an independent party” and would “continue to lead with strength.”

Echoing statements he had made when announcing the alliance at a press conference with Liberman last Thursday, Netanyahu declared: “The vote today on unifying the lists won’t change Likud,” while the presence of Liberman’s party would afford him “the strength to change, the strength to lead the State of Israel assertively.”

A panoramic view of the Likud Central Committee meeting (photo credit: Raphael Ahren/The Times of Israel)

A panoramic view of the Likud Central Committee meeting (photo credit: Raphael Ahren/The Times of Israel)

Addressing speculation to the effect that the merger with Yisrael Beytenu would pave the way for a Liberman premiership, Netanyahu said: “I intend to lead Israel for many years to come. And the Likud will lead Israel for many years to come.” The applause was loud and prolonged, in sharp contrast to Netanyahu’s previous appearance before the committee in late spring, when he tried and failed to gain control of the hierarchy that will choose the Likud’s Knesset candidates ahead of what were then expected to be elections in the summer. Chastened, Netanyahu built a short-lived coalition with Kadima.

After Netanyahu’s speech, Liberman called the Likud’s decision to run on a joint list a “a historic and important step.”

Speaking to The Times of Israel after the event, Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor, who had reportedly opposed the alliance, could hardly hide his disappointment. “We will see what happens now – we will make the best of it,” he said, unwilling to outright criticize the party’s decision.

According to their agreement, Liberman is slated to hold the second slot on the joint list behind Netanyahu. Netanyahu said Sunday that Liberman was given the freedom to transfer to one of three senior cabinet portfolios — foreign affairs, finance and defense — and that Liberman had chosen to remain at the helm of the Foreign Ministry.

The rest of the joint list will reportedly feature two Likud candidates for every Yisrael Beytenu candidate, approximately reflecting the two parties’ relative Knesset standings today.