JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel’s primary centrist challengers to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on Thursday they were joining forces, a dramatic move that rocked the country’s political system and created the first credible alternative to Netanyahu’s decade-long rule.
Retired military chief Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid, head of the Yesh Atid party, said they would present a joint list for the upcoming Israeli elections that “will constitute the new Israeli ruling party.” In a joint statement, the two said they were “motivated by national responsibility.”
“The new ruling party will bring forth a cadre of security and social leaders to ensure Israel’s security and to reconnect its people and heal the divide within Israeli society,” they said. A formal announcement is expected later in the day.
Recent polls suggest that together, the two could surpass Netanyahu’s ruling Likud to become Israel’s largest faction after the April 9 vote. Under their unity arrangement, the two agreed to a rotation leadership should they come to power under which Gantz would first serve as prime minister and would then later be replaced by Lapid.
Following them in the joint list would be a pair of other former military chiefs, Gabi Ashkenazi and Moshe Yaalon. Ashkenazi announced he was joining the new party because of the “pivotal moment and the national task at hand.”
Even if the joint list surpasses Likud at the ballot box, it is not guaranteed to form the next government unless it can garner a parliamentary majority with other parties. Netanyahu, who is embroiled in multiple corruption allegations and faces a potential impending indictment, has taken a hard turn to the right in recent days to shore up his nationalistic base.
On Wednesday, he said he reached a preliminary election deal with two fringe religious-nationalist parties in a bid to unify his hard-line bloc.
Netanyahu’s Likud party announced it would reserve the 28th spot on its parliamentary list for the pro-settler Jewish Home party and grant it two Cabinet ministries in a future government if it merges with the extremist Jewish Power party.
Jewish Power is comprised of hard-line religious nationalists who have cast themselves as successors to the banned Kahanist movement, which dreamed of turning Israel into a Jewish theocracy and advocated forced removal of its Palestinians.
Netanyahu’s courting of such forces drew sharp condemnations from much of the Israeli mainstream, with Gantz accusing him of losing touch “with his Zionism and with his dignity.”
The flurry of developments comes ahead of a Thursday night deadline for parties running for the April 9 parliamentary election to submit their lineups.