Substantial opposition within Likud and Yisrael Beytenu to new alliance

Poll shows 22% of Likud voters and 32% of Yisrael Beytenu voters would not vote for joint list; analysts say move may backfire on PM, cite his over-reliance on US adviser Arthur Finkelstein

A snap poll conducted for Channel 10 News Friday showed substantial, though not overwhelming, levels of opposition within the Likud and Yisrael Beytenu to the alliance of their two parties to run together in January’s elections.

The decision to run on a joint list was announced Thursday night by Likud leader and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Yisrael Beytenu head and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman. Netanyahu made clear that the parties themselves were not merging, just running on a single slate for the Knesset; Liberman, by contrast, spoke in interviews Friday of building a big, serious “party” that would revive the “historic” national camp.

Political analysts on Israel’s two main TV news shows Friday night both argued that the alliance would backfire on Netanyahu, yielding fewer seats than the two parties would have won by running separately. One analyst suggested Netanyahu had been overly influenced by polling and advice from long-time American conservative political adviser Arthur J. Finkelstein. Liberman confirmed in a TV interview that he was in ongoing contact with the New York-based Finkelstein, but also said Finkelstein was currently busy with the US elections.

Though hailed by the two party leaders as a partnership that was sure to benefit both of their parties and the wider Israeli interest, Channel 10’s poll showed 26 percent of Likud voters saying they opposed the alliance, with 58% supporting it. On election day — January 22, 2013 — 22% of Likud voters said they would not vote for the joint list, with 52% saying they would.

Among Yisrael Beytenu voters, 35% said they opposed the alliance, with 51% backing it; and a substantial 32% said they would not vote for the joint list, compared to 40% who would.

The Likud’s Central Committee is set to convene on Monday to approve the partnership. Only one leading Likud figure, MK Michael Eitan, has come out publicly in opposition to it, and he was likely to lose his Knesset  seat in the elections anyway. Eitan said Friday that the partnership was “a mistake ideologically,” since the two parties have differing platforms and priorities, and “a mistake practically,” since it would not yield more seats than the two parties would win running separately.

A two-thirds majority is reportedly needed in the Central Committee for the alliance to be approved, and Eitan is leading an effort to arrange a secret vote, and circulating a motion to this effect, so that Likud members would not have to openly defy Netanyahu to oppose the idea. A motion approved by 10% of Committee members is needed for a secret ballot to be held.

Liberman is set to address the Central Committee meeting, Channel 2 said, to bolster support for the partnership 13 years after he left the Likud to form Yisrael Beytenu.

Many Likud MKs privately oppose the merger, Channel 10 claimed, naming Deputy Prime Minister Silvan Shalom and MK Miri Regev, neither of whom has said anything publicly to this effect.

Privately, some Likud members are said to believe that Netanyahu panicked into agreeing to the alliance, and that it will backfire. Channel 10 said he was concerned about former prime minister Ehud Olmert returning to politics, and heading a merged center-left bloc including Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, Kadima, and former foreign minister Tzipi Livni. Its news report claimed Olmert was now more inclined than he had been to make a political comeback, despite various legal obstacles that could still stand in his way.

Channel 2 analyst Amnon Abramovich suggested Netanyahu had fallen prey to poor polling predictions by Finkelstein. Insiders claimed Thursday that internal polls had shown a Likud-Yisrael Beytenu alliance could win 50 seats in the 120-member Knesset (currently the Likud has 27 and Yisrael Beytenu has 15). But some in the Likud believe the allied list will win only 32 seats, the TV analysts said.

Abramovich claimed that in 1996, Netanyahu merged the Likud Knesset list with two minor parties, Gesher and Tzomet, because Finkelstein’s polls supposedly predicted their alliance would win 45 seats. In fact the combined list won only 32 seats — which proved just sufficient for Netanyahu to win the elections and become prime minister from 1996-99.

Meanwhile, further details of the agreement emerged Friday. The joint Likud-Yisrael Beytenu Knesset slate will have Netanyahu in first slot, and Liberman in second. From there on, the list will feature two Likud candidates followed by one Yisrael Beytenu candidate — reflecting the approximate strengths of the two parties in the outgoing Knesset. The Likud will choose its candidates in internal party primaries; Liberman heads a panel in his party that chooses its potential MKs.

Netanyahu agreed that Liberman could choose any ministerial position; Liberman said Friday he would likely stick with the Foreign Ministry.

Netanyahu also pledged not to relinquish the Golan Heights in any negotiations with Syria.


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