In this Oct 31, 2016, file photo, Yair Lapid, leader of the Yesh Atid party, gives an interview to The Associated Press, in his office at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem. (SEBASTIAN SCHEINER / AP)
JERUSALEM — Israel's primary centrist challengers to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Thursday 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 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."
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
Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister, Israel
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"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, in a dig at Netanyahu.
A formal announcement was expected later in the day, with the two naming their full list and new name for their joint party.
The development instantly injected a threat to topple the long-serving Netanyahu. Recent polls suggest 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.
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 their egos aside in favor of the bigger challenge ahead. He announced he was joining the new party himself 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 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.
On Wednesday, he postponed a trip to Moscow to meet 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 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 Palestinians.
In this Jan 29, 2019, file photo, former Israeli Chief of Staff Benny Gantz speaks at the official launch of his election campaign in Tel Aviv, Israel. (ODED BALILTY / AP)
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 Defense League is considered a terrorist organization by the FBI.
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."
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The flurry of developments comes ahead of a Thursday night deadline for parties running for the April 9 parliamentary elections to submit their lineups.
The maneuvers seemed to have spurred others to pursue unification moves as well, as a previously fragmented political landscape begins to come together, six and half weeks before election day.
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 as well.
"Congratulations to the union in the center that will provide an alternative to Likud," she said. "Opposite the prospect of a Likud-Kahanist government we need a center-left government."
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