As bid to unite right intensifies, PM asks for extra spots on Likud list

Netanyahu seen trying to add smaller party or big-name candidates in effort to head off challenge from possible centrist bloc coalescing around Benny Gantz

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plants an olive tree at the Netiv Ha'avot neighborhood in the Elazar settlement in the West Bank, on January 28, 2019. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plants an olive tree at the Netiv Ha'avot neighborhood in the Elazar settlement in the West Bank, on January 28, 2019. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reached out to Likud officials Saturday in a bid to reserve more spaces on the party’s ticket, in what may signal the first steps toward uniting with another party on the right for upcoming Knesset elections.

The move comes amid reports that talks have intensified between Netanyahu’s two biggest rivals to join forces in a move that could see the Likud party ousted from power in the April 9 poll.

Netanyahu is asking Likud officials to reserve him two spots on the Likud slate, in addition to the one slot he already has control over as leader of the party, aside from his own place as candidate No. 1. He described the move as a reaction to “expected mergers on the left.”

The move would allow for Netanyahu to inject big-name candidates from outside the party into the faction ahead of the April elections, but more likely would open up spots for a unity deal with an additional right-wing party, Channel 12 news reported.

While the No. 21 spot on the Likud list was already reserved for a candidate of his choosing, the premier is now asking officials of his party to sign off on giving him the No. 28 and No. 36 slots as well.

The party is currently polling at around 30 seats, but could bolster those numbers if it joins up with a rival on the right. Israel Resilience, a new centrist party led by former general Benny Gantz, is predicted to snag around 19 seats if elections were held today. Polls held last week, though, showed an Israel Resilience merger with fellow centrists Yesh Atid getting around 35 seats, and the bloc could further strengthen if center-left parties also join forces with it.

The relatively low places requested by Netanyahu on the party lineup would seem to indicate plans for a merger with a less powerful right-wing party, such as Jewish Home, which polls show likely failing to enter the Knesset after two of its top candidates broke off to form the New Right party late last year.

Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben Dahan (3R), MK Moti Yogev (R) and MK Nissim Smoliansky (C) attend a conference of the Jewish Home Party in Yad Binyamin on January 17, 2019 (Yehuda Haim/Flash90)

Jewish Home Director General Nir Orbach tweeted Saturday that his party is right now focusing on electing its next leader and not running as a “Likud subsidiary.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Education Minister Naftali Bennett, left, attend the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, Tuesday, August 30, 2016. (Abir Sultan/Pool/via AP)

Another possible merger would be with New Right, led by Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, who served as ministers in Netanyahu’s last coalition, but were also outspoken critics of the prime minister. According to Channel 13 news, internal Likud polling shows the party rising to 38-39 seats if it merges with New Right.

Moshe Kahlon, leader of the Kulanu Party, told Channel 12 news Saturday night he ruled out a possible merger with Likud.

Netanyahu’s appeal for three reserved spots will come before party members for a vote Tuesday, when the party also holds its primary. In a letter explaining the request, Netanyahu said he is “convinced that this is necessary to increase our chances of winning the elections.”

“Dear Likud members, we are facing a difficult campaign. The left and the media are making tremendous efforts to overthrow the Likud government. We must prepare accordingly,” he wrote.

Two weeks

Jockeying between different parties to unite or outflank each other has ramped up ahead of the February 21 deadline for factions to finalize their Knesset slates.

Gantz, a political neophyte who headed the IDF under Netanyahu from 2011 to 2015, has posed the biggest challenge to Netanyahu in his last nine years of power and has already joined up with former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon’s Telem Party.

Israel Resilience’s Benny Gantz during a meeting with residents of the Kochav Ha’tsafon neighborhood in Tel Aviv, February 1, 2019 (Sraya Diamant/Israel Resilience)

However, talks to merge with Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid have reportedly gotten hung up on who would have the top spot on the slate.

Earlier Saturday, Yesh Atid Knesset member Ofer Shelah said a decision on merging the parties would be made within in the next two weeks.

Yair Lapid speaks at the Globes business newspaper Conference, at the Jerusalem Convention Center, on December 19, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

But he insisted that “the most established government alternative in Israel is Yesh Atid led by Yair Lapid, and it needs to lead those who want to change the government.”

Lapid, a journalist who entered politics in 2013, has argued that his experience in the Knesset makes him the more quitable candidate for prime minister. Meanwhile, a poll last week showed Gantz and Netanyahu neck and neck on the question of who is most suitable to lead the country, a category Netanyahu has normally dominated.

Ultra-Orthodox unity?

Elsewhere on the right, Channel 12 reported fresh talks between the two ultra-Orthodox parties — Shas and United Torah Judaism — regarding a possible merger.

“If the rabbis want it, it’ll happen,” a Shas official told the TV channel.

Polls have shown Shas barely squeaking into the Knesset, while UTJ would get around seven seats.

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