By Anna Hopkins
Published February 21, 2019
Two centrist opponents of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have formed an alliance in a bid to defeat him in the country's upcoming elections.
Retired military chief Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid, head of the Yesh Atid party, will enter the April 9 elections on a combined ticket in an agreement that would have them rotate as Prime Minister. Should they win the landmark election, Gantz would serve for two-and-a-half years, and Lapid for the same time period after that.
The groundbreaking political move comes as the first significant threat to Netanyahu's rule in a decade, as he faces multiple corruption scandals and a possible indictment.
Gantz and Lapid issued a joint statement in which they said they felt "motivated by national responsibility" to combine their powers to heighten the possibility of ousting Netanyahu.
"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.
Gantz is the former head of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), and Lapid is a former television host turned politician. Their joint list for a new party also includes other major players, former military chiefs Moshe Yaalon and Gabi Ashkenazi. Ashkenazi said he chose to join the party because of the "pivotal moment and the national task at hand."
Should their new party find success at the ballot boxes in April, it would still require a parliamentary majority. In order to do so, they need to form partnerships with other ruling parties.
In response, Netanyahu has made some alliances of his own. On Wednesday, he reportedly postponed a trip to meet Vladimir Putin in Moscow in order to stay in Israel to make a deal with two religious-nationalist parties, an extension of his recent attempt to appeal to hard-right voters.
In exchange for an alliance between the Jewish Home and Jewish Power parties, Netanyahu's Likud party promised to reserve their 28th parliamentary seat to two of their Cabinet ministries.
The Jewish Home and Jewish Power parties reportedly house a number of controversial figures including Bezalel Smotrich, who has referred to himself as a "proud homophobe" and Benzi Gopstein, the leader of an extremist group whose Twitter handle translated to "Khanan was right." This refers to the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, the former leader of the Jewish Defense League, a group considered as a terrorist organization by the FBI.
The probability of Gantz and Lapid's new party taking victory over Netanyahu is a long shot, but not out of the realm of possibility.
"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."