It was announced this weekend that the two main parties of the Israeli Right, the Likud and Israel Beitenu (Israel is Our Home) have formed a joint list to run in the Israeli election on January 22, 2013. The new list is named Likud Beitenu (Likud is Our Home). Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will head the list and Israel Beitenu leader Avigdor Lieberman will be the number two man on the list and will have his pick of ministries after the coalition is formed: foreign minister, defense minister, or finance minister. Last night the Likud by a large majority approved the merger, without Netanyahu having revealed the number of seats that each party would receive on the joint list. To see Netanyahu's acceptance speech (in Hebrew) go here.
The immediate reaction on the Center-Left was one of shock. Everyone in Israel was pretty much resigned to Netanyahu continuing as prime minister after the election, but the thought that the merger might become permanent and leave Lieberman as Netanyahu's successor as the new party leader has people in shock. Many in Israel claim that Lieberman's role model is not any of the figures on the secular Right such as Ze'ev Jabotinsky, Menahem Begin, or Yitzhak Shamir but rather Vladimir Putin, the semi-democratic and semi-authoritarian leader of Russia. Leiberman immigrated to Israel from Moldova--Soviet Romania--in 1978 at age 20. After serving in the army, he worked as a bouncer and entered politics as an aide to Netanyahu during the latter's first term as prime minister. He then left the Likud to found his own party of Russian immigrants to compete with Natan Sharansky's Israel B'Aliya (Israel on the Rise/Israel in Immigration) party. Lieberman has taken his party through a series of mergers and splits on the Right as he searched for a winning formula. This formula was eventually to attack Israel's Arab minority as disloyal and demand a loyalty oath.
The new joint list is projected to win 43 seats, but early polls are notoriously inaccurate when it comes to the final election results. An old Israeli saying has it that Israelis lie to pollsters and tell the truth in the voting booth--usually voting their fears rather than their hopes. Here is an analysis by former Israeli diplomat Alon Pinkus, who is associated with the Labor Party and is currently a fellow at the Israel Policy Forum in New York, that argues that the merger may be less rather than more than the sum of its parts (which occupy 42 seats).
The Israeli Center is now searching for a leader. There is no shortage of possible candidates: Tzipi Livni, the Likud princess and former foreign minister who lost the leadership of Kadima to Shaul Mofaz recently; Shaul Mofaz, the former Likud defense minister who quit the Likud after swearing that he wouldn't and who is now the Kadima leader; Ehud Olmert, the former mayor of Jerusalem and then Kadima leader who blew the Second Lebanon War and then resigned because he was under indictment for corruption; Yair Lapid, a television personality and son of former Ma'ariv columnist and Shinui leader Yosef "Tommy" Lapid who is brand new to politics; and Shelly Yakhimovich, the new leader of Labor. Of these five leaders, two have recently failed, one is untested, and two are relatively new. Many in Labor would object to running under the leadership of Olmert, a convicted felon who declared that he was no longer a public personality in order to benefit in sentencing. Mofaz could claim that he is the leader of the largest existing party. Yakhimovich could claim that she is the leader of the most established party and one that is likely to be bigger than Kadima after the election.
Yakhimovich has quite intelligently decided to concentrate on social and economic issues rather than on national security or the peace issue. This is smart for several reasons. First, Labor's concentration on the peace process led to its collapse after the collapse of Oslo. Second, as a woman she lacks credibility on defense and foreign affairs issues in macho Israel. Golda Meir, prime minister from 1969 to 1974 had a number of war-hero generals (Moshe Dayan, Yigal Allon) in her cabinet to boost her credibility. Tzipi Livni had operational experience in the Mossad. Yakhimovich was a journalist. Third, Israel is still in a rightist anti-Arab mood and won't support a peace party at this time. An analysis of Labor's MK candidates shows that most come from Israel's large cities, this is a major contrast to the past when many came from collective agricultural settlements (moshavim and kibbutzim).
Should the parties of the Center-Left come together to run as a single bloc then this election will most resemble the election in 1965. In 1965 two new blocs ran for the first time: the Alignment and Gahal. The (First) Alignment was a joint list of Mapai, the ruling party, and Ahdut Ha'Avoda a hawkish generals party led by Yigal Allon and Israel Galili. Three years later this Alignment joined with a Mapai splinter party, Rafi, led by former Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, former chief of staff Moshe Dayan, and future prime minister and president Shimon Peres to create the Israel Labor Party. A year later the Israel Labor Party formed a joint list with the leftist Mapam party to form the (Second) Alignment, which lasted for 15 years. On the Right the nationalist Herut Party and the free market Liberal Party formed the Herut-Liberals Bloc, or Gahal in Hebrew. Gahal won no more seats its first time out than the two parties won running separately in previous elections. 1965 was the start of a 35-year period of two opposing blocs that gave Israel electoral and political stability. That period ended with the outbreak of the Al-Aksa Intifada and the collapse of the Israeli Center-Left.