The Likud secretariat on Tuesday approved a merger deal between the party and Moshe Kahlon’s center-right Kulanu and confirmed that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would be its prime ministerial candidate in the next election, preventing any of the premier’s rivals within the party from leading the faction if snap elections are called.
The motion backed by the party will see four slots on the Likud slate reserved for Kulanu members: 5, 15, 29, 35, with Kahlon placed fifth.
The party also authorized Netanyahu to remain at the helm of the Likud leadership if new elections are held in the fall and said the Likud list — apart from adjustments due to the Kulanu additions — would remain unchanged, waiving a requirement to hold party primaries before each general election.
The alliance — which brings Kahlon, a former Likud minister, back into the fold of his former party — angered some in Likud and came as the country appeared poised to hold an unprecedented second election in a year as coalition talks reached a deadlock.
It also came as opposition lawmakers in the Blue and White party called on Likud members to break ranks and form a government without Netanyahu.
Likud MK Israel Katz said the deal, with Tuesday’s vote, was “final” and would not need to be taken to the Likud Central Committee for approval.
“The union brought us a victory over the media and the left,” said Netanyahu at the secretariat meeting. “I am moved by the trust you’ve shown in me during the past few years and during this meeting. We are forging ahead together, whatever happens, and together we will win.”
Kahlon later on Tuesday confirmed the deal.
“We have decided that in the event that the elections for the 22nd Knesset are moved up, the Kulanu party will run on a joint list with Likud in the elections,” he said, adding that his party will continue to “uphold the values on which it was founded.”
The finance minister also expressed hope that a coalition would be formed and early elections averted within the next day, saying “many millions of shekels will be wasted” if Israel heads to the polls.
Some 30 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 announced their joint ticket, which will become immediately relevant should the prime minister fail to cobble together a coalition by Wednesday at midnight.
“With Kahlon, we will receive 40 seats,” declared Netanyahu. In the April 9 election, the Likud party won 35 seats and Kulanu won four, down from the 10 it clinched in the 2015 election.
Should he form the next coalition, the agreement is also expected to ease Netanyahu’s planned efforts to advance an immunity law and bill limiting the Supreme Court to shield himself from prosecution, which Kahlon had in the past opposed but whose Kulanu colleagues in recent days walked back their opposition.
Though the secretariat vote was passed by a wide margin, not all Likud members were pleased by Kahlon’s homecoming.
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.
Other senior Likud members, including Haim Katz and Gideon Sa’ar, boycotted the vote, the Walla news site reported.
In an apparent effort to appease the backbench lawmakers, who will likely lose their position due to the alliance, the Likud motion also pledged to expand the so-called Norwegian Law, which allows ministers to resign as Knesset members and vacate their seats for the next candidates on the party list. The Likud said it would amend the law — which is currently limited to one resignation per party — to four.
A senior Likud source told Channel 12 news the emerging agreement was “a classic bribery deal.”
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.
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.
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 coalition 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.
As the political crisis intensified in recent days, Likud accused Liberman of operating out of personal spite against Netanyahu, and launched a biting campaign against him. But Liberman 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.
Kulanu was formed by Kahlon ahead of the 2015 elections and championed socially friendly economic policies, particularly for young families.
AFP and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.