Likud: Gantz and Lapid will usher in ‘leftist’ government ‘backed by Arabs’

Ruling party pans merger between two main Netanyahu challengers; Jewish Home and Otzma Yehudit say joint ticket justifies their own alliance

Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid (L) and Israel Resilience party chief Benny Gantz. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90, Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid (L) and Israel Resilience party chief Benny Gantz. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90, Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The Likud party on Thursday panned the electoral alliance struck between Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid — the two main challengers to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the upcoming elections — as further proof that former-IDF chief Gantz would usher in a “leftist” government.

“Now the choice is clear: Lapid and Gantz’s left-wing government backed by the Arab parties, or a right-wing government headed by Netanyahu,” the party said in a tweet.

The prime minister, who has waged a months-long campaign to portray Gantz as a “weak leftist,” did not officially respond to the merger, but retweeted Likud’s post.

Earlier on Thursday, Gantz and Lapid announced they were joining forces, forming the most credible potential alternative in a decade to Netanyahu’s prime ministership.

Recent polls suggest that together, the two could surpass Netanyahu’s ruling Likud to become Israel’s largest faction after the April 9 vote. Under their unity arrangement, the two agreed to rotate as prime minister if they won, with Gantz helming the alliance for the first two and a half years.

Other parties in Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc, including the newly formed alliance between the Jewish Home and the far-right Otzma Yehudit faction, also panned the merger. Jewish Home-Otzma Yehudit said the Gantz-Lapid ticket justified their own partnership, which was reached on Wednesday.

Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organisations, in Jerusalem on February 18 2019. (MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)

“This morning proved that we acted with great responsibility in preserving religious Zionism and the entire right-wing bloc,” those two parties said. Otzma and Jewish Home said Israel was facing “serious danger” from a “leftist” government under Gantz coupled with the Trump administration’s peace plan.

Netanyahu brokered the unity pact between Jewish Home and Otzma Yehudit on Wednesday, in a bid to boost the number of seats held by right-wing parties after the April 9 elections, with an eye on his next potential coalition government.

From L to R: Far-right activists Baruch Marzel, Itamar Ben Gvir and Michael Ben Ari confront a police officer who prevented them from attending an anti-mosque protest in Umm al-Fahm on April 10, 2017. (Channel 2 screenshot)

The agreement, which raises the profile and potentially grants Knesset seats to Otzma Yehudit, prompted accusations from critics who said Netanyahu was pandering to extremists. Otzma Yehudit’s leaders are self-declared disciples of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, who was banned from the Knesset after one term as an MK in the 1980s for racism. Otzma Yehudit seeks to extend Israeli sovereignty throughout the areas captured by Israel in the 1967 war, and to encourage the removal from that expanded Israel of non-Jews, including Arab citizens of Israel and West Bank Palestinians, deemed disloyal to the Jewish state.

The ultra-Orthodox Shas party said the merger between centrists Gantz and Lapid was “dangerous for Judaism,” and underscored its support for Netanyahu.

“Gantz, who supports civil marriage and public transportation on Shabbat, is a friend of Lapid, whose hatred of Judaism is his profession,” the party said in a statement. Shas leader Aryeh Deri said Shas would not even sit in a Netanyahu-led coalition that included the Gantz-Lapid alliance. Yesh Atid has pushed for years to raise the number of ultra-Orthodox Jews doing national service, a move bitterly opposed by Shas.

The Labor party meanwhile stuck an optimistic tone about the Lapid-Gantz merger, saying the alliance could defeat Netanyahu in April, even facing the additional seats on the right potentially gained from the Jewish Home-Otzma alliance.

The Jewish Home party votes on a pre-election alliance with Otzma Yehudit in Petah Tikva, February 20, 2019. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

“The merger increases the chances of creating a bloc to stop Netanyahu and his Kahanist support,” Labor’s Itzik Shmuli said on Twitter. He underscored the need for a “large and strong Labor party that will be able to help navigate the ideological supermarket need to maximize the chances for a revolution.”

Meretz leader Tamar Zandberg congratulated Gantz and Lapid for offering a “centrist alternative to a Kahanist Likud government.”

Former prime minister Ehud Barak also congratulated the two, who “overcame the obstacles, showed national responsibility and joined forces to facilitate a revolution.”

“The choice is between a corrupt government ruled by Kahanists and racists or a government that can bring us back to a strong Israel that is loyal to its constitution,” Barak tweeted.

After all-night talks, Gantz and Lapid announced before dawn Thursday morning they would present a joint list for the upcoming elections that “will constitute the new Israeli ruling party.” In a joint statement, the two said they were “motivated by national responsibility.”

“The party will put forward a new leadership team which will guarantee the security of Israel and will reunite the divided elements of Israeli society,” Gantz and Lapid said.

The announcement also said that popular former IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi had agreed to join the united list in the wake of the merger, further adding to their potential centrist appeal.

The leaders were to make a joint announcement later on Thursday. No further details were released, including the name of the new union.

Gantz heads his recently launched centrist Israel Resilience party, while Lapid leads Yesh Atid, which currently has 11 Knesset seats.

Opinion polls have shown the two as the main challengers to Netanyahu, who has been expected to win despite corruption investigations into his affairs. Polls conducted earlier this week indicated that Gantz and Lapid could overtake Netanyahu as the largest voting bloc in the Knesset, but would still have difficulty forming a majority coalition.

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