When Likud’s leader Netanyahu and Israel-Beitenu Leader Liebrman ended their press conference last Thursday, announcing the merge of the two major right winged parties in Israel, the press asked them to stand together for a photo-opp. Netanyahu leaned towards Lieberman, as if trying to hug him. Lieberman, loyal to his formal public image, pulled his right hand forwards, offering no more than a handshake. This photographic incident, some may say, symbolises the biggest question arising over the merge – how rewarding will this political wedding be? Or in other words – will 1+1=2 or will 1+1=1.5?
The reason why each leader decided to enter into this deal is solely domestic. Generally speaking, Netanyahu realised (as written previously) that these elections are actually an open game and his victory is far from sealed. He wants to make sure he will gain more votes than any other party (present or new) in the centre left, and that Lieberman (who has spent more years as a rival than an ally) will stick with him and won’t leave him for another coalition. Lieberman wants to secure his role as the right’s next prominent leader, defying any future rivalries from Netanyahu’s successors in the Likud, while gaining power over Likud’s strongholds. Some would say that this merge even sends a strong hint to the Attorney General, who currently needs to determine whether to indict Lieberman on a decade-long case against him.
However, one of the most pressing issues that differentiates the two is hardly domestic – but actually international – the Palestinian (or Arab) issue. Netanyahu (“I call Abu Mazen to meet me immediately and begin direct negotiations on two states for two peoples”) and Lieberman (“Abu Mazen is corrupt, we have no partner for talks”) may find the political forces within them to ease their formal differences – but these forces might not be found among the general public.
Israel’s political history clearly shows that in the vast majority of cases – when two parties in the same bloc merge, they ultimately gain less votes together than they would had they run separately. There is always logic behind this too. Many Likud voters in 2009 considered themselves as centre-right voters, who believed in a peaceful solution and believed Netanyahu when he called for direct negotiations based on the two states for two people notion. Lieberman gained votes and support from former Likud voters who believed that a stricter right-wing approach was needed. This gap in opinions, which is shown not only in the leaders’ positions but also firmly in their actual electorates, is hardly easy to bridge. Recent polls conducted in Israel consistently show that over 20% of Likud voters of 2009 are re-thinking their vote because of this merge. For most, if not all of them, this is due to the difference in opinions between the so called centre-right Netanyahu and the so-called hard-right Lieberman. This is 20% – and the campaign hasn’t barely started.
Nonetheless, and as I mentioned previously – a similar merge in the centre-left may gain vast support from the Israeli public, if it would be perceived as politically viable and ready to lead the nation. This political threat, which obviously affected Netanyahu, just received another portion of potential voters from the centre-right. If the need in the centre-left bloc to have a merge was clear before the merge, it is now becoming imminent and pressing. What was once a solid prayer of many in the public is slowly becoming an urgent outcry from many corners of Israel, thanks to the Likud-Beitenu wedding.
As in every campaign in the world it is hard to predict the outcome. But the picture is becoming clearer: The game is open, all actors are fearful and all bets are valid. A hot winter in Israel is in place – and other than the rain – no one knows what’s going to wash the streets.