JERUSALEM: The two main challengers to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced an electoral alliance on Thursday, posing a threat to the premier’s long rule as he also faces potential corruption charges.
While polls have consistently shown Netanyahu is likely to win the April 9 election, the combined power of his two main challengers from the political center will at minimum shake up the campaign.
An announcement by Israel’s attorney general ahead of polling day of charges against the prime ministers would greatly boost the new alliance’s cause, but it is unclear when a decision in the investigations will be unveiled.
Netanyahu has tacked further to the right as he faces the potential indictments and the challenge from the newly allied centrist politicians: Benny Gantz, a respected former armed forces chief of staff, and Yair Lapid.
He demonstrated that on Wednesday by brokering a deal which will raise the profile of an extreme-right party and potentially see it win seats in Parliament, leading critics to say he was pandering to “racists.”
Gantz and Lapid have seized on such moves and the corruption investigations to promote their alliance as one that can restore Israel’s values.
They said they had agreed to unite “out of a sense of deep national responsibility.”
“The party will put forward a new leadership team which will guarantee the security of Israel and will reunite the divided elements of Israeli society,” Lapid’s statement said.
Other members of the alliance include former Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon and another ex-military chief, Gabi Ashkenazi.
Gantz and Lapid plan to rotate as prime minister should they win the election.
Gantz would be premier for the first two-and-a-half years and Lapid, a former television journalist-turned politician, would take over afterward.
Netanyahu’s Likud party responded to the alliance by repeating the line of attack it has engaged in for weeks, seeking to label Gantz a “weak” leftist.
Israeli politics have moved firmly to the right in recent years, with much of the population having grown weary of calls for a two-state solution and unwilling to make significant compromises in favor of the Palestinians.
“The choice is clear: It’s either a left-wing Lapid-Gantz government with the support of the Arab parties, or a right-wing government led by Netanyahu,” a statement said.
Netanyahu already leads what is seen as the most right-wing government in Israel’s history.
Prominent members of his coalition openly rule out a Palestinian state and advocate annexing much of the occupied West Bank.
The 69-year-old leader’s political skills are well-known, and some analysts said even with a united opposition he would still be the clear favorite.
Netanyahu has been prime minister for around 13 years in all and would be on track to surpass founding father David Ben-Gurion as Israel’s longest-serving premier should he win in April.
He would not be required to step down if indicted, only after conviction with all appeals exhausted. He denies all allegations.
Shmuel Sandler, political science professor at Bar Ilan University, said the merger sharpened the focus of the race.
“It’s going to be center versus right,” he said.
“I think given the current polls, Netanyahu still has a better chance of winning even after the merger.”
A campaign that has already turned into a mud-slinging fest is meanwhile likely to become dirtier.
Gantz had long sought to remain above the fray, but he unleashed a stinging rebuke of Netanyahu in a speech on Tuesday night after a series of Likud attacks against him.
He chided Netanyahu for his long years studying and working in the US early in his career while also accusing him of becoming “addicted to the pleasures of power, corruption and hedonism.”
“When I lay in muddy foxholes with my soldiers on frozen winter nights, you, Benjamin Netanyahu, left Israel to improve your English and practice it at luxurious cocktail parties,” Gantz said.
Netanyahu struck back immediately, highlighting his own military experience and arguing that his English oratory has benefited Israel.
“Benny Gantz, be ashamed of yourself,” the prime minister said in a video clip, saying he had “risked my life time and time again for our country.”