The General Who Wants to Topple Netanyahu Expands Rival Bloc

(Bloomberg) -- Benjamin Netanyahu is facing his most formidable election challenge yet after his top rival teamed with another large opposition party to run together in Israel’s April 9 vote.

Former military chief Benny Gantz’s new Israel Resilience party and ex-Finance Minister Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid announced their alliance early Thursday after marathon talks, saying they were “motivated by national responsibility.” The unity move paved the way for a third ex-military chief, Gabi Ashkenazi, to join the list in addition to Moshe Ya’alon, strengthening its security credentials -- an all-important issue in Israeli elections.

Under the agreement, Gantz and Lapid would rotate as prime minister if their Blue and White party -- named for the colors of Israel’s national flag -- forms the next government. Gantz, whose party has been polling strongest after Netanyahu’s Likud, would serve first, for 2 1/2 years.

The General Who Wants to Topple Netanyahu Expands Rival Bloc

“Everything is fluid,” said Abraham Diskin, a professor emeritus of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “I think we are going into a very exciting election and there are too many parameters that are going to be decided at the very last moment.”

Polls Thursday showed the new alliance surging to as many as 36 seats to become the Knesset’s largest party, passing Netanyahu’s Likud, which ranged from 26 to 32 seats. Yet Netanyahu, with the support of religious and nationalist partners, still appeared best positioned to form a governing coalition with at least 61 of the legislature’s 120 seats.

Two religious nationalist parties joined forces on Wednesday, and some politicians called for further tie-ups before the deadline for submitting election slates late Thursday.

Corruption Allegations

The Gantz-Lapid alliance, while significant, would be eclipsed if Attorney General Avihai Mandelblit announces before the balloting whether he intends to put the prime minister on trial in multiple corruption cases.

The General Who Wants to Topple Netanyahu Expands Rival Bloc

Polls show that the investigations haven’t eroded Netanyahu’s popularity within his base, and he says he’s the victim of a left-wing witch hunt designed to overthrow his nationalist government. But voter sentiment may change if Mandelblit decides against him, and it might also affect prospective coalition partners’ willingness to sit in his government. Israeli media have reported that a decision is expected within the next few weeks.

Another wild card is the fate of some of the smaller parties that are currently in parliament but may not win enough votes to return to the legislature. Their “lost” votes could make the difference between a nationalist bloc led by Netanyahu or a center-left government led by Gantz and Lapid.

Stark Choice

Likud has been trying to paint Gantz, whose security positions hew close to Netanyahu’s, as a reckless leftist whose government would have to depend on the support of Arab parties. In a statement following his alliance with Lapid it said: “The choice is clear. Either a leftist Lapid-Gantz government backed by a blocking majority of Arab parties or a right-wing government led by Netanyahu.”

The formation of the Blue and White party prompted calls for further consolidation of Israel’s fragmented political landscape. The leader of the socialist Meretz party asked the Labor party to negotiate a tie-up, and Education Minister Naftali Bennett, chairman of the nationalist New Right party, called on Netanyahu to team with Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu Party and former Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, the Ynet news website reported.

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