At tonight’s (Monday) Likud convention, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will ask his party to jettison its proud liberal-democratic heritage and run on a joint list with Yisrael Beytenu, solely in order to ensure he will be asked by the president to form the country’s next government following January’s elections.

As to whatever happens afterwards to the Likud, Netanyahu frankly does not give a damn so long as he is safely ensconced back in the official prime ministerial residence in Balfour Street for a third term.

Alongside its nationalistic, territorial expansionist ethos, the Likud also has a strong vein of western democratic liberalism running through its body, as best represented by politicians such as Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin and ministers Bennie Begin, Dan Meridor and Michael Eitan, a group sarcastically derided as feinschmeckers (a Yiddish term for those with over-refined tastes) by Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman.

While Rivlin, Begin et al firmly believe in Israel’s rights to settle in Judea and Samaria, they also believe that Israel’s Arab population should be treated as full citizens, enjoying the same civil rights as the Jewish majority. In this, they faithfully follow the dictates of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the founder of the Revisionist Zionist movement, the ideological precursor to the Likud.

In 1934, Jabotinsky wrote a draft constitution for the Jewish state which declared that the Arab minority would be on an equal footing with its Jewish counterpart “throughout all sectors of the country’s public life.” He also proposed that in every cabinet where the prime minister is a Jew, the vice-premiership should be offered to an Arab and vice versa.

Yisrael Beytenu’s leadership, on the other hand, prefers to view Israeli Arabs as a dangerous fifth column, to be treated with the utmost suspicion and, if possible, removed from the country in any future peace agreement with the Palestinians as part of a population exchange.

One wonders whether Jabotinsky, were he alive today, would make it on the joint Likud-Yisrael Beytenu slate the prime minister is so eager to create.

THE PRIME MINISTER’S enthusiasm for weakening the Likud brand by merging it with Yisrael Beytenu is hard to understand, until one takes into account Netanyahu’s central character flaw: fear.

According to most recent opinion polls, the Likud would garner the most seats in the coming elections, leaving Netanyahu the favorite to be tasked by the president to form the country’s next government.

But our prime minister, as shown by his recent zig-zagging over the summer when he first backed the idea of early elections in September, only then to chicken out at the last minute to set up the pathetic coalition with Kadima, before then pulling the plug on that partnership because he feared alienating his haredi partners, does not like taking political chances.

And so, with the same opinion polls showing a rise in support for the Labor Party under Shelly Yacimovich’s leadership, encouraging figures for Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, and even suggestions that a new party headed by either Ehud Olmert of Tzipi Livni (neither of whom have actually decided yet whether to run) could, possibly, challenge Netanyahu, the prime minister decided to merge with Yisrael Beytenu and thereby ensure that the new combined listing will receive the largest number of seats of any one party and thus be in pole position to form the country’s next government.

INDEED, BOTH Netanyahu and Liberman have talked of their joint list increasing the number of Knesset seats they currently have, but in politics, as in business, there is no guarantee that the consolidation of two separate entities will actually create a greater whole.

In fact, there is a very clear chance that by running with Yisrael Beytenu, the Likud will lose significant numbers of its current voters. The Likud’s veteran feinschmeckers, for want for a better word, will certainly find it hard to vote for list that includes the powerful anti-democratic tendencies of Yisrael Beytenu. Liberman’s fawning admiration for a Putin-style strong government which brooks no opposition is anathema to these true democrats.

On the other end of the Likud spectrum, its religiously observant voters will also find it hard to support a joint list that has a prominent number of Russian immigrants, espousing an agenda in support of civil marriage and the open sale of pork products.

For Liberman, the advantage of running with the Likud is clear. His party is reaching the end of its natural life now that the 1990s generation of Russian immigrants to Israel are becoming more Israeli and have less need of ethnic-based political party to represent. By merging with the Likud and receiving the number two slot on the list, Liberman is now the heir-in-waiting to inherit Netanyahu’s leadership of the right.

In a country where a recent opinion poll found that a third of Israeli Jews support a law banning Israeli Arabs from voting for the Knesset and almost half (49 percent) want the state to treat Jewish citizens better than Arab ones, that is a truly frightening thought.

The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.

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