High-profile Netanyahu challengers join forces in Israel election bid

Israel's primary centrist challengers to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday announced they were joining forces ahead of April elections — a dramatic move that shook up the country's political system and created the first credible alternative to Netanyahu's decade-long rule.

Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid say they would take turns as PM if they win in April

Benny Gantz, head of Resilience party, left, and Yair Lapid, head of Yesh Atid, hold a news conference in Tel Aviv on Thursday to announce the formation of their joint party, running in the April 9 Israeli election. (Amir Cohen/Reuters)

Israel's primary centrist challengers to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday announced they were joining forces ahead of April elections — a dramatic move that shook up 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 on live TV Thursday that they would present a joint list for the upcoming vote that "will constitute the new Israeli ruling party."

In a joint statement, the two said they were "motivated by national responsibility."

They appeared together on a live prime-time nationwide broadcast to formally unveil their partnership.

"A winning team needs to be led. I wouldn't be standing here today if I didn't believe that Benny Gantz could lead us to victory and then lead the country," said Lapid, who put his own ambitions of becoming prime minister on hold to form the partnership.

The development instantly injected a threat to topple the long-serving Netanyahu. Polls released on Israeli TV stations showed that together, Gantz and Lapid 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 be replaced by Lapid after two-and-a-half years.

As Israel's prime minister campaigns against powerful opponents in the run-up to an April election, he must also contend with police allegations of corruption. And he remains at the epicentre of one of the world's most bitter conflicts -- his country's relationship with the Palestinians. Michael's guest is Anshel Pfeffer, author of a new biography called Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu.

Following them in the joint list would be a pair of other former military chiefs, Moshe Yaalon and Gabi Ashkenazi.

Ashkenazi has long been working behind the scenes to make the union happen, urging the major players to put aside their egos in favour of the bigger challenge ahead. He announced he was joining the new party because of the "pivotal moment and the national task at hand."

Netanyahu's Twitter account reacted to the merger with multiple posts indicating the choice was clear for Israeli voters between "a weak left government" and a country that was "flourishing" under his leadership.

Coalition is needed for a majority

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 by forming a collation with other parties. But the dramatic merger seems enough to make the election a real fight for Netanyahu.

"For the first time since 2009, we have a competitive race for the premiership and this is the result of the emergence of this new centrist force," said Yohanan Plesner, a former lawmaker and president of the non-partisan Israel Democracy Institute.

"There are now, as a result of this unification, two, I would say, legitimate major parties ... [but] it's not a done deal," Plesner said. "I think Netanyahu is still more likely to win and to emerge as prime minister at the end of this election campaign, but it is a competitive race."

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.

Netanyahu postpones Putin meeting

On Wednesday, he postponed a trip to Moscow to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin to stay home and reach 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 composed 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 Palestinians.

Among the prominent figures in the joint Jewish Home-Jewish Power list are Bezalel Smotrich, a self-avowed "proud homophobe," Itamar Ben Gvir, an attorney who has made a career defending radical Israeli settlers implicated in West Bank violence, and Benzi Gopstein, leader of an extremist anti-assimilation group whose Twitter handle translates to "Kahane was right."

The late American-born Rabbi Meir Kahane's Jewish Defence League is considered a terrorist organization by the FBI.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, adamant he will continue to serve despite swirling corruption inquiries, has also been attempting to solidify support in Israel's multi-party politics. (Sebastian Scheiner/Reuters)

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 parliamentary elections to submit their lineups.

The manoeuvres seemed to have spurred others to pursue unification moves as well, as a previously fragmented political landscape begins to come together.

Tamar Zandberg, head of the dovish Meretz party, called on the Labor party to merge with it to create a united front on the left.

"Congratulations to the union in the centre that will provide an alternative to Likud," she said. "Opposite the prospect of a Likud-Kahanist government we need a center-left government."