JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel's prime minister announced Thursday that he was joining forces with his hard-line foreign minister in upcoming elections, instantly creating a hawkish superparty that now appears poised to lead the country.
The deal between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party and Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu made the new bloc the clear front-runner in the January elections and gave the ultranationalist foreign minister, a staunch opponent of concessions to the Palestinians, a major say in any future peace efforts. It also raised speculation that centrist opposition parties might now be compelled to unite as well.
"Israel needs to unite forces for the sake of Israel. Therefore Likud and Yisrael Beteinu will run together on the same ticket in the next elections," Netanyahu said at a news conference.
"We are asking for a mandate from the public to lead Israel against the security threats foremost preventing Iran from arming itself with nuclear weapons and the struggle against terror," he said.
Israelis vote for political parties, not individual candidates. The leader of the party with the most seats in the 120-member parliament usually serves as prime minister of a coalition government.
The Likud has been leading in opinion polls, but the resurgent Labor Party has been making gains by criticizing the outgoing government's record on economic and social issues.
Analysts suggested that Netanyahu took Thursday's step in order to head off the possibility of a broad centrist bloc led by Labor. Together with Yisrael Beitenu, Likud could control more than 40 parliamentary seats, based on recent polls, making it roughly twice as large as Labor.
Opposition lawmakers said the new alliance created an extremist party opposed to peace and that would alienate many moderate voters. Labor's leader, Shelly Yachimovich, urged her centrist rivals to rally behind her.
"I call on all the centrist forces in the Israeli political map to join with Labor ... to not let the Lieberman-Netanyahu government rule," she said. Yachimovich called Netanyahu's new coalition "racist" and called on "moderate voters on the right" to join Labor.
Lieberman has been both an ally and a rival of Netanyahu over the years. As foreign minister, he has sparked a number of diplomatic incidents with his sharp criticism of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and other Arab leaders.
Lieberman, an immigrant from the former Soviet Union, has appealed to many fellow Soviet immigrants with his tough message but also drawn accusations of racism by questioning the loyalty of Israel's Arab citizens.