After marathon, all-night talks, the leaders of the two top-polling centrist parties, Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid, announced Thursday that they had agreed to merge their party lists to challenge Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s frontrunning Likud in the upcoming elections.
The announcement, just after dawn, said that Gantz’s Israel Resilience party and Lapid’s Yesh Atid had agreed that should they win and form a government, Gantz would be prime minister first for a period of two and a half years, and then Lapid would take over.
The announcement also said that popular former IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi had agreed to join the united list in the fourth slot in the wake of the merger, in a move intended to further add to their broad centrist appeal.
“From a feeling of national responsibility, it was decided by Benny Gantz, Yair Lapid and (Moshe) Ya’alon to create a united list that will become the new governing party of Israel,” Gantz and Lapid said in a joint statement.
Ya’alon, another former IDF chief of staff and a former Likud defense minister, had already united his Telem party with Gantz.
“This new governing party will present a new team of security and social leaders that will ensure the security of the nation and reunite the fractured elements of Israeli society,” the statement said.
The statement announced the rotation agreement and said Ashkenazi had decided to join due to the “pivotal moment and the national task at hand.”
The alliance injects greater competition into April’s elections. “For the first time since 2009, we have a competitive race for the premiership and this is the result of the emergence of this new centrist force,” said Yohanan Plesner, a former lawmaker and president of the non-partisan Israel Democracy Institute.
“There are now, as a result of this unification, two, I would say, legitimate major parties … (but) it’s not a done deal,” Plesner said. “I think Netanyahu is still more likely to win and to emerge as prime minister at the end of this election campaign, but it is a competitive race.”
Gantz and Lapid were to hold a joint press conference on Thursday evening, at which they would announce the name of their new alliance and its joint list of Knesset candidates.
Talks had long stalled over who would lead the joint list, and how much of Lapid’s Yesh Atid’s policy platform the unified faction would adopt.
Gantz, whose Israel Resilience party is polling well ahead of Lapid’s Yesh Atid, reportedly had wanted to stay at the top for the entire term.
Earlier, sources familiar with the talks who spoke with several Israeli media outlets on Wednesday said that if the two agreed to a rotation, the party of the second-term leader would get a larger share of the joint list’s Knesset slots.
The two leaders met for two and a half hours earlier Wednesday, at the home of Yesh Atid campaign manager Hillel Kobrinsky in Savyon, after which their advisers took over the negotiations. The leaders then met again at night.
The decision to merge the lists had to be made before 5 p.m. Thursday, the final legally-mandated deadline for registering each Knesset list that will run in the April 9 race.
Gantz had unveiled his party’s Knesset slate at a gathering on Tuesday night, and used the opportunity to announce his intention to call Lapid and propose an immediate meeting in order to join forces with Yesh Atid.
“As soon as the conference is over, I will call my friend Lapid, and I will propose to meet with him this evening. I will again propose to him to set all other considerations aside, and together we will put Israel before everything else,” Gantz said in his speech, which was marked by a scathing personal attack on Netanyahu.
Gantz and Lapid indeed ended up talking after the speech, and again through Wednesday.
Polls have shown that a merger of both parties would become the biggest Knesset faction and have a better chance to challenge Netanyahu’s Likud.
But Yesh Atid had said it was waiting for clarifications on Israel Resilience’s views on a range of issues, including the nation-state law passed in the previous Knesset, religious freedom, and whether Gantz would join a Netanyahu-led government if a victorious Netanyahu were to offer him a senior post.
“You can’t weaken the opportunity for historic change due to a debate over job opportunities,” Gantz urged on Tuesday. “Let’s rise above [the differences], unite and win.”
Lapid responded to Gantz in a statement that read, “As I said [Monday] on stage [when presenting his own party’s Knesset candidates], we will leave no stone unturned, we will do everything to ensure we don’t miss a historic opportunity to replace this government.”
Meanwhile, Israel Resilience’s separate talks with MK Orly Levy-Abekasis’s Gesher party, which were almost finalized in recent days, fell through Wednesday night, as the Gesher party announced Gantz’s talks with Lapid had effectively nullified the agreement between the two parties.
In the list of 30 candidates originally presented by Israel Resilience on Tuesday, six of the first 23 were from Ya’alon’s Telem party; only five of the top 20 were women. The merging Israel Resilience-Yesh Atid parties were formulating their new joint list of would-be MKs ahead of its presentation later Thursday.