In making an electoral pact with Avigdor Liberman’s far right Yisrael Beiteinu, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is taking a huge, possibly game-changing risk.

The neo-conservative Likud leader’s gamble could boomerang in two ways: Instead of Likud-Beiteinu throwing the center-left into disarray, it could reinvigorate it; and the price for using Liberman to maximize Likudcontrolled Knesset seats could be Liberman using the Likud to supplant Netanyahu as leader of the Israeli right. To put it bluntly: What the prime minister took on board as an election-winning master stroke could turn out to be a major political blunder.

In the run-up to the January 22 election, American political guru Arthur Finkelstein, who once worked with Netanyahu but now advises Liberman, convinced the prime minister that as head of a large right-wing alliance he would be able to kill two birds with one stone. He would be sure to form the next administration and get a mandate for strong, decisive government, including possible action against Iran, digging in on the Palestinian question and changing the electoral system. But Finkelstein now works for Liberman. And where for Netanyahu the pact has risks, for Liberman it is all win-win. It gives the radical right-winger an added measure of mainstream legitimacy and a launching pad for a future run for prime minister.

On paper the deal looks promising for Netanyahu, too. But it lays him open to a strong challenge from the center left for making a pact with the radical right that could put Israel’s brittle democracy at risk, further hurt the weaker classes and strain relations with the outside world.

Worse for Netanyahu: The pact with the secular, largely Russian immigrant party jeopardizes the support of observant, blue-collar Sephardi voters, who make up the Likud’s core constituency. Indeed, Netanyahu could suffer a double whammy from his erstwhile strategic ally, the ultra-Orthodox Sephardi Shas, which will almost certainly pick up disaffected blue-collar Likud voters and might also prefer a coalition with the center left to a government dominated by Netanyahu’s neo-con economics and Liberman’s Russian-immigrant, secular agenda.

There is also the question of Liberman’s leadership aspirations. There are historical precedents for radical right-wing movements sweeping to power on the backs of the more conservative right. And, although for now the Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu alliance is only an electoral pact, the Likud, with its heady brew of far-right Knesset members and “Feiglinites,” the extremist settler group led by Moshe Feiglin, could be ready for Liberman.

So why did the normally circumspect Netanyahu agree to gamble? Initially, he was concerned by rumors that the 89-year-old Shimon Peres was being cajoled into leaving the presidency to lead a unified center-left “stop Bibi” campaign. Then the talk was that former prime minister Ehud Olmert would do it. Netanyahu’s move is designed to minimize the electoral impact of either scenario by creating the perception of an invincible unified right. He also hopes the Likud-Beiteinu alliance will enable him to win the election as head of by far and away the largest party, denying the president any discretion in deciding who should form the next government.

More importantly, Netanyahu is banking on the pact with Liberman to ensure that the right-wing block has a majority of more than 60 Knesset members backing him for prime minister. He remembers how after the last election in 2009, the Yisrael Beiteinu leader made him sweat. Then Liberman won 15 seats, leaving him the kingmaker. He made the most of it, first holding preliminary coalition talks with Kadima’s Tzipi Livni and then going underground. When he re-emerged a few days later, he was easily able to extract the Foreign Ministry from a severely shaken Netanyahu in return for his support.

Netanyahu also knows Liberman is a close friend of Olmert’s and that he admires the former prime minister’s decisive leadership style. Netanyahu feared that this time the Yisrael Beiteinu leader might not merely bluff about supporting the center-left to get a better coalition deal, but that he might actually join the rival camp, especially if its candidate for prime minister is Olmert. The electoral pact prevents that. The coalitionary horse-trading is already done and dusted. In return for supporting Netanyahu for prime minister, Liberman has been promised the choice of any one of the three top portfolios: foreign affairs, defense or finance.

But there is a potential snag. By making a formal alliance with Liberman, Netanyahu could undermine the Likud’s unwritten bond with Shas, carefully nurtured over several years of painstaking negotiations with former Shas chairman, Eli Yishai.

Indeed, for Shas leaders, the pact with Yisrael Beiteinu is something of a betrayal.

The Russian immigrant party is in many ways their polar opposite. Where Shas is ultra-Orthodox and Sephardi, Yisrael Beiteinu is ultra-secular and Ashkenazi, with a constituency that tends to look down on Shas’s Sephardi voters, and an agenda that undermines their vision of a state based on Jewish religious values and social compassion.

Moreover, Shas leaders have not always been Netanyahu fans. Their spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef once called him a “blind nanny goat,” deriding his tight-fisted running of the Finance Ministry. Furthermore, the return of the relatively moderate Arye Deri as part of a new collective leadership could also loosen the Likud’s lock on coalition rights with Shas.

Indeed, despite their fiercely right-wing electorate, Shas leaders have been dropping broad hints that the party intends to play both sides of the right-left divide. An early sign of this came in mid-October, when in a radio interview former Shas spokesman Yitzhak Sudri surprised his audience by declaring categorically that all the party’s Knesset members would back peace moves with the Palestinians, if Yosef told them they should.

Sudri, a member of Shas’s election strategy team, argues that by merging with Yisrael Beiteinu, the Likud has sacrificed two key defining characteristics: concern for the Sephardi poor and reverence for traditional Jewish values. He insists that, as a result, it could lose large numbers of observant Sephardi voters to Shas, especially in the development towns. He speaks of a huge reservoir of voters on the edge of the political space between Likud and Shas and predicts that many of them will come back to vote Shas the way they did in 1999, when it won 17 Knesset seats. “There is a widely perceived need for a large Shas precisely to prevent the anti-Jewish identity and antisocial welfare trends in Likud-Beiteinu,” he tells The Jerusalem Report.

According to Sudri, even before the Likud- Beiteinu alliance, Shas was looking at 13-14 seats, up from its current 11. Now he says the figure is 16-17. If these projections hold, Shas will almost certainly be the kingmakers next January. And Sudri warns that they will not support a government that promotes Liberman’s secularizing agenda: civil marriage, public transport on the Sabbath and more lenient conversions to Judaism, all of which they see as undermining the Jewish character of the state. “Obviously our hearts are with Netanyahu. He is our natural ally. But not at any price. Shas is an independent movement. It’s not in anybody’s pocket,” Sudri declares.

The brief “Kahlon affair” in the second half of October seemed to indicate just how vulnerable Likud-Beiteinu might be to a rival right-wing party with a credible socioeconomic program favoring working and middle voters. Polls showed that Moshe Kahlon, the popular Communications Minister, who drastically reduced cell phone costs, could have won between 13 and 20 seats had he decided to leave the Likud and run at the head of a new social welfareoriented list.

Political strategist Eyal Ariel, one of a group of close confidants who urged Kahlon to run, maintains that he could have revolutionized socioeconomic thinking in Israel and achieved social reforms the left “can only dream of.” Ariel, however, insists that in their initial polling most of Kahlon’s support came from the center-left, and less than 30 percent from the Likud. “I don’t think traditional Likud voters have that many options. They won’t go to the left. Those who are ready to consider an ultra-Orthodox party have already made their move. Some might look at what is happening with the mainly Orthodox-settler Habayit Hayehudi party under its new leader Naftali Bennet. It might take some seats from the Likud,” he tells The Report.

Most analysts are less sanguine. They see three types of Likud voter having difficulty stomaching the merger with Liberman: Observant and blue collar voters who could leave for Shas or the revived Habayit Hayehudi; socially concerned voters who might support Shas or the center-left; and moderates anxious over Israeli democracy and relations with the Arab world who could cross over to the center-left. Indeed, some early polls were not as flattering as Likud leaders hoped, showing the combined Likud- Beiteinu list winning only 35 seats, less than the 42 seats they hold separately in the current Knesset.

There is also a degree of unrest in Yisrael Beiteinu. Support for the mainly Russian immigrant party generally comes from three roughly equal but distinct constituencies: Veteran Israelis who share Liberman’s radical ultra-nationalist ideology; Russian-speaking immigrants who share this ideology; and Russian speakers seeking a voice for their sectarian community needs.

According to Roman Bronfman, a former Knesset Member and expert on Russianspeaker voting patterns, the pact with Likud has reinforced support from the first two groups, but significantly weakened that of the third. He reckons around two Russian immigrant seats have shifted to Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid, and about half a seat each to leftwing Meretz and Communist Hadash. More importantly, Bronfman says ideas are being floated about forming a new centrist Russian immigrant party to pick up the slack. He says he doesn’t think he personally will run, but points out that he has a registered party, the Democratic Choice, which he would be ready to make available if needed. “Initial polling results have been positive. And if the decision is to run, it could be as a separate party or as part of a new unified centrist grouping,” he tells The Report.

Indeed, the outcome of the election will probably be decided by the degree to which the center left can get its act together. Their platform more or less writes itself. Kadima is already excoriating Netanyahu for an “obsession” that will drive him to attack Iran against American wishes and before other alternatives are properly explored; Labor will target his “cruel capitalism”; Meretz and the Arab parties Liberman’s threat to the rule of law and minority rights; Olmert and former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, if they run, the threat the Netanyahu-Liberman duo pose to the two-state solution and to Israel’s international standing.

They will point to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s recent moderate statements on the key negotiating issues of borders and refugees, and could also be helped by a reelected US President Barack Obama putting an Israeli-Palestinian package on the table the center left can build on.

The problem for the center left is whether it can produce a leader the public perceives as a potential prime minister. That’s what it did in 1999 with Ehud Barak. This time though Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich and Yesh Atid’s Lapid have yet to convince that they are ripe for the top job; Olmert and Livni are both flawed candidates, Olmert because of his legal troubles, Livni because of past political failures; and Peres is 89 years old. But if over the next several weeks one these potential candidates fires the public imagination, and the others unite around him or her, the election could get very interesting.

Besides the leadership issue, there is another potential game-changer: The Israeli- Arab vote. In 2009, the Israeli-Arab turnout was only 52 percent compared to the 65 percent national average. This time, after a string of anti-Arab Yisrael Beiteinu-led and Likud-backed legislative initiatives in the outgoing Knesset, the Arabs have a strong stop Netanyahu-Liberman incentive.

There is also talk of the three mainly Arab parties running a single unified list.

The most popular candidate to lead it is 53-year-old Ahmad Tibi of Ra’am-Ta’al, but he says he would be ready to step aside for the sake of unity. If there is a single list and the Israeli Arabs vote their weight, they could win around 20 seats. And that could change the balance between right and left in Israel in favor of the left.

Netanyahu and Liberman go back to the late 1980s. They worked closely together from the time Netanyahu returned to Israel from his stint as UN ambassador in 1988, through Netanyahu’s rise to Likud leader in 1993 and prime minister three years later, until 1998, when Liberman resigned as director general of the Prime Minister’s Office over concessions Netanyahu made to the Palestinians and his backtracking on plans to cancel all-party primaries for choosing Likud Knesset candidates.

In January 1999, Liberman formed Yisrael Beiteinu, leading it in an increasingly extremist direction, talking about bombing Egypt’s Aswan Dam, claiming menacingly that “only Liberman understands Arabic,” and introducing anti-Arab and anti-left-wing NGO legislation in the last Knesset.

Bottom line: Despite all the commotion on the center left, Netanyahu-Liberman are, for now, still on course to win the election. The questions this raises for Israel’s future are profound. Where will they take the country if they win? Who will be leading whom? And will the center left find the energy and the political smarts to stop them?

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