The Likud Central Committee on Monday officially approved by a large majority the merger with Yisrael Beiteinu ahead of the coming Knesset election.
Before the open vote, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the committee delegates, who had gathered at the Tel Aviv Exhibition Grounds.
In his speech, Netanyahu referred to recent assertions that Yisrael Beiteinu head and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman had come to Likud to take Netanyahu’s place in the future.
“I’ve heard all sorts of talk in recent days about heirs. I have news for you. I intend to lead for many more years,” Netanyahu said. “I believe that at this time it is essential that the nationalist camp unite forces, and that is the reason that I asked Avigdor Lieberman to run on a single joint list with us. I want to be clear. The Likud will remain an independent party and will continue to be a nationalist and liberal party. It will continue to be a movement for all of Israel’s citizens. The unity will not change Likud, but it will change the State of Israel.”
Netanyahu’s comments were echoed on Tuesday by Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar. The two parties will remain independent and will keep their separate platforms after the elections, Sa’ar told Army Radio. The Likud will remain a democratic party and will maintain its values, Sa’ar said.
He added that what had been agreed at this stage was how the joint list would be presented at the elections and which slots would be reserved for MKs from which parties and sectors.
Meanwhile, the deeper issues concerning religion and state, the system of government and controversial legislation will be discussed after the elections.
Earlier, Improvement of Government Services Minister Michael Eitan, who led the opposition within Likud to the merger deal, failed to present on time the 400 signatures required to force the vote to be taken by a secret ballot. During the open vote, only several dozen delegates opposed the deal, out of the thousands of delegates in attendance. After the vote, Eitan said that he accepted the committee’s decision.
Lieberman called the committee’s approval of the merger a “historic and important step that will strengthen the State of Israel, which will be managed by experienced and united leadership.”
Other Yisrael Beiteinu officials also praised the vote.
“This evening, changing the system of government in Israel began,” Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said. “No more blackmail, no more divisiveness, no more instability.”
Yisrael Beiteinu MK Alex Miller said, “The joint list will permit intelligent leadership.”
Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin (Likud) said the merger would contribute to the full integration of immigrants from the former Soviet Union into Israeli society.
Labor Chairwoman Shelly Yachimovich criticized the approval of the merger.
“Many Likud supporters are having difficulty identifying with this union,” Yachimovich said. “Netanyahu’s action was a political mistake.”
Aryeh Deri, one of the three political leaders of Shas, said the merger showed that “there is only one party in Israel that cares about reducing social gaps, and that is the Shas movement.”
The formation of the new party may also raise concern over negotiations with the Palestinians, of which Lieberman has been critical. However, Netanyahu’s advisors have quickly dismissed those reports.
“Netanyahu hopes that in his third term this will be possible,” the advisor said. “He is ready for a discussion of all the core issues with the Palestinians and is ready to engage with Abbas.”
Opposition Leader Shaul Mofaz of Kadima, who temporarily joined Netanyahu in a coalition last spring, was highly critical of the merger and suggested that Israel’s left and centrist parties join together.
“This is a wake-up call for the entire center to unite and put ego aside,” Mofaz said.
A poll conducted by a Lieberman campaign advisor suggests that the new party could gain 51 seats in the new election; currently both parties hold a combined 42 seats.
—This article first appeared in Israel Hayom and is distributed with the permission of that newspaper