TEL AVIV, (AFP) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and ultra-nationalist Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman have agreed to join forces for a general election in the new year, boosting the premier’s position as favourite.
Netanyahu and Lieberman said Thursday they will present a joint list for the January 22 election without merging their respective parties, Likud and Yisrael Beitenu.
“Israel needs to unify its forces to govern and face security and economic challenges… The Likud and Yisrael Beitenu will therefore present a common list in the next election,” Netanyahu told reporters.
Lieberman said he intended to “contribute to the stability of the next government.”
“De facto, we have already established a change in the political system, which ensures stability” of power, he said.
Netanyahu and Lieberman held secret negotiations before announcing their surprise alliance which will allow them to present themselves as the most likely grouping to head the next coalition government.
Likud currently has 26 seats in the 120-seat Knesset or parliament, and Yisrael Beitenu has 15. Polls show both parties should at least retain or even boost their representation in the chamber.
Parliament voted overnight on Monday to dissolve itself ahead of elections by 100 votes to none in a third reading following a nearly nine-hour session.
Netanyahu has blamed the need for early elections on a coalition deadlock over the passage of a budget packed with austerity measures, but commentators say it was a move to capitalise on his current standing in the polls, which put him as the sole realistic contender for the premiership.
Israel’s current ruling coalition, which includes the centrist Independence party headed by Defence Minister Ehud Barak, holds 66 seats, but a poll published earlier this month in Haaretz newspaper showed that even without Barak’s faction, Netanyahu and his allies looked set to increase their number of seats to 68.
By comparison, the opposition — comprising centrist, left-wing and Arab parties — would win just 52.
The leader of the opposition Meretz party, Zehava Galon, mocked the latest development as “future government Biberman,” referring to Netanyahu’s nickname Bibi and Lieberman, saying “it will be stuck at the social level just as it is in the peace process” with the Palestinians.
Direct Israel-Palestinian peace talks have been frozen for two years, with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas rejecting talks for as long as Israel continues to build and approve new Jewish settlements.
The United States and Israel on Thursday slammed a call by an outspoken UN rights expert for a boycott of companies helping Israel’s settlement expansion in the Palestinian territories.
US Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said the boycott appeal by Richard Falk would “poison the environment for peace.” An Israeli spokeswoman criticized the “distasteful sideshow.”
Opinion polls suggest that Netanyahu and the rightwing and ultra-Orthodox parties allied with him are set for a comfortable victory, given the fragmentation of the opposition and the lack of alternative candidates for the premiership.
On October 16, Netanyahu told MPs Israel is facing its “greatest” challenges since the founding the state, in a clear reference to the Iranian nuclear threat, despite Tehran’s insistence that its nuclear programme is peaceful.
“Anyone who belittles the threat which a nuclear Iran poses to Israel is not worthy of leading Israel for even one day,” the Israeli leader told MPs.
“Today we have the capabilities to act against Iran and its satellites; capabilities that we did not possess in the past,” he said.
Israel has insisted it will not rule out a unilateral military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities, sparking public statements from US officials cautioning against any such action.
But Israel, the Middle East’s sole if undeclared nuclear power, believes the window for effective military action that could set back Iran’s programme is narrowing.