As Israel slides toward elections, Likud set to approve merger with Kulanu

Deal would give Moshe Kahlon four seats on right-wing slate, prompting anger within Netanyahu’s party

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Backdropped by Jerusalem's Old City Walls, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) holds a press conference with Moshe Kahlon, January 21, 2013. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Backdropped by Jerusalem's Old City Walls, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) holds a press conference with Moshe Kahlon, January 21, 2013. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party will convene on Tuesday afternoon to approve a merger with Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu, in a move that has angered some in the ruling party.

Likud MK Miki Zohar said a meeting would be held at 4 p.m. to green-light the deal, which came as Israel appeared to be inching toward snap elections in the fall — the second this year.

Likud lawmakers were reportedly fuming over the plan, which would give Kahlon’s party four reserved slots on the Likud slate in the next election. The contours of the proposal, and how it would be implemented within the current Knesset should elections be averted, were not immediately clear.

Netanyahu will also ask the Likud Secretariat to cancel the party’s requirement that primaries be held before each general election, according to the Haaretz daily.

Some 36 hours before the deadline for Netanyahu to form a coalition, Likud was pressing ahead with a bill to dissolve the Knesset and call new elections, amid a standoff in negotiations with Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman and the ultra-Orthodox parties.

As talk of another general election mounted, Netanyahu and Kahlon appeared prepared to run on a joint ticket, should the prime minister fail to cobble together a coalition by Wednesday at midnight. The agreement gives Kulanu slots number 2, 12, 20, and the bottom one of the Likud party list, according to Haaretz.

In protest, freshman MKs Michal Shir and Ariel Kallner on Tuesday petitioned their party’s judicial body against the Likud Secretariat’s vote on the merger. Their petition charged that only the Likud Central Committee has the authority to make such decisions.

Likud members Haim Katz and Gideon Sa’ar will be boycotting the vote, the Walla news site reported.

A senior Likud source told Channel 12 the emerging agreement was “a classic bribery deal.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and leader of the Yisrael Beyteinu political party Avigdor Liberman sign a coalition agreement in the Israeli parliament on May 25, 2016 (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)

The official told the network the political arrangement was designed to ensure that Kulanu’s four lawmakers back the bill to dissolve the Knesset, which is expected to be put to its final two votes by end of day Wednesday, unless Netanyahu and Liberman reach an eleventh-hour coalition deal. The Likud-drafted motion could still be pulled at any time before the final vote if a compromise to the coalition crisis is found.

Unless the prime minister promises Kahlon the four slots, Kulanu will oppose the bid to call new elections, the Likud official claimed.

According to the Yedioth Ahronoth daily, six Likud lawmakers left the Knesset on Tuesday night for dinner against the party’s request for all MKs to remain in the parliament until the first vote on the dissolution of parliament was finalized, in what the paper described as the stirrings of a Likud revolt against the Kahlon merger. The lawmakers apparently returned to vote in favor of the bill.

The reports came amid concerns within the 35-seat ruling party that it would not be able to muster the 61 votes needed to disperse the Knesset and call snap elections, a move apparently designed to forestall the prospect of President Reuven Rivlin tasking someone else with forming a coalition.

Likud MK Miki Zohar on Tuesday said the party had 60 votes, one shy of a majority, in favor of the bill, should it be raised for its final two votes. His remark came amid speculation that Likud backbenchers in the short-lived 21st Knesset could stage a rebellion against the bill over the Kahlon deal, which would see them demoted on the party list and likely kept out of the parliament if new elections are held.

House Committee Chairman MK Miki Zohar leads a discussion at the Knesset in Jerusalem, May 27, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Zohar did not elaborate on his tally. Thus far, apart from Likud, the five-seat Yisrael Beytenu, eight-seat United Torah Judaism, eight-seat Shas, five-seat Union of Right Wing Parties, and four-seat Kulanu supported the bill in its preliminary and first votes on Monday. The opposition largely opposed it, with the exception of the Hadash-Ta’al party, which abstained. The left-wing Meretz party, however, has said it may change its vote and back the dissolution of the Knesset in the final readings.

Zohar said several dates for new elections were on the table, including September 3, 10, and 17, and October 29.

Netanyahu has yet to ink a deal with any of his prospective partners, and progress has stalled amid an impasse between the secular Yisrael Beytenu and ultra-Orthodox parties on the question of a bill regulating the military draft among the ultra-Orthodox.

Liberman, the Yisrael Beytenu leader, has repeatedly said he backs Netanyahu for prime minister, but will only join the government if there is a commitment to pass, unaltered, a version of the bill that passed its first reading last July, during the previous Knesset. That version of the bill is opposed by ultra-Orthodox parties, which want to soften its terms. Netanyahu needs both Yisrael Beytenu and the Knesset’s ultra-Orthodox parties to form a majority government.

While advancing the possibility of snap elections, Netanyahu has been working feverishly to reach a deal with his would-be coalition partners, and on Monday, his party offered a unspecified compromise on the draft law.

But Liberman blasted the Likud’s offer in a Tuesday morning Facebook post, saying the proposed compromise was dishonest.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman is hosted by Minister of Health Yaakov Litzman (left), at a meal to celebrate the birth of Litzman’s grandson, June 18, 2017. (Shlomi Cohen/FLASH90)

As the political crisis has intensified in recent days, Likud has accused Liberman of operating out of personal spite against Netanyahu, and has launched a biting campaign against him. But Liberman has brushed off the accusations, maintaining that his refusal to join a Netanyahu-led government under the proposed terms was due to his aversion to religious coercion.

Holding another election so soon after the previous national vote, on April 9, would be unprecedented in Israel, and there have been concerns over the cost and prolonged political paralysis that would result.

AFP and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

read more:
Never miss breaking news on Israel
Get notifications to stay updated
You're subscribed