Senior sources in Likud-Beytenu have expressed fear that should the Left unify after the Knesset elections on January 22, they might lure one of the religious or ultra-Orthodox parties and thus block Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from forming a coalition. If one of these parties fails to recommend Netanyahu for the premiership, President Shimon Peres could task a leftist party with forming the coalition. Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan [Likud] said as much on Monday when he said that Netanyahu's premiership after the next elections was "not a done deal" because many voters might think that since Netanyahu was going to win anyway, they could vote for other parties, and thus weaken Likud-Beytenu.
"There is a chance that one of the ultra-Orthodox parties will not recommend Netanyahu," a source in Likud-Beytenu told Israel Hayom. "This could lead President Shimon Peres, who has an interest in bringing down Netanyahu's government, to give the task of forming a government to a candidate from the leftist bloc." The ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, which is polling at around seven mandates, has already indicated that it was unhappy with Netanyahu over various issues and has threatened to switch allegiances.
In Israel, the Knesset member who has the best chance at forming a government after elections usually gets the nod from the president and has several weeks to present a governing coalition. Usually the head of the party with the largest Knesset representation is tasked with this job. After the most recent elections, however, Peres tasked Netanyahu with forming the government despite the Likud finishing in second place, owing to the overall strength of the Right wing bloc and its allies in the Knesset.
On Sunday night, Labor Party Chairwoman Shelly Yachimovich, Hatnuah Chairwoman Tzipi Livni and Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid met to discuss forming a unified bloc, but the meeting failed to bear fruit.
The purpose of the bloc would be to combine mandates and stop Netanyahu from forming a coalition by recommending a prime minister from within the left wing bloc.
"The atmosphere was good. The [three party leaders] discussed the dangers inherent in an extreme government and we agreed to get together and talk any time when there is a need," the three said in a joint statement following the meeting.
According to Army Radio, during the meeting Yachimovich and Lapid demanded that Livni declare her refusal to sit in a Netanyahu-led government, but Livni refused to do so.
"We cannot speak out of both sides of our mouth by trying to establish a bloc that would prevent a coalition while at the same time conducting negotiations with Netanyahu about entering into his government," Yachimovich told Army Radio on Monday.
"As long as Netanyahu continues to serve as prime minister," read a statement issued by Yachimovich's campaign on Monday, "nothing will change, and the path to cooperation to replace Netanyahu must start with a statement identical to that of Yachimovich: We will not sit in a government with Netanyahu and it is possible to defeat him."
For her part, Livni refused to divulge what was said during the meeting but conceded that "we did not accomplish what was needed."
Livni also told Army Radio that there is no point in announcing her refusal to enter a Netanyahu-led government, as it would merely amount to spin.
"Lapid himself said he would be willing to enter a Netanyahu government, so it's odd he's asking me to say I wouldn't. Either we become part of the opposition to an extreme, right-wing Netanyahu government, or we enter a national unity government for the sake of the Jewish people. Nevertheless, I refuse to be a fig leaf for a right-wing government."
Livni said she would only join Netanyahu's government if another Center-Left party did so as well. Since Yachimovich has pointedly refused to do so, this leaves only Yesh Atid.
On Monday, Lapid said that he would not enter a Netanyahu government "alone," that is, without another party not in the right wing bloc.
"It is impossible to ignore the eventuality that Netanyahu will form the next government," he said, "so we have to be responsible."
Meanwhile, the Likud reacted on Sunday to political maneuvering on the Left with a new campaign message specifically targeting the Left and its plans to unify.
"It is possible that the election campaign started anew yesterday," Netanyahu said on Sunday.
Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar (Likud) told Israel Radio on Monday that Livni, Yachimovich and Lapid will likely meet again following elections, this time with Meretz Chairwoman Zahava Gal-On as well as with representatives of Arab parties, and will ask the president to view them as a single bloc.
Sunday evening, at an event of young Likud leadership at the Tel Aviv port, Netanyahu said, "I am happy to see more than a thousand young people who have come from all over the country. You understand what many others understand, that in the face of unification on the Left we need Likud-Beytenu to be as large as possible. This is the only way to ensure that a Likud government continues to lead the country. A vote for any other party could possibly enable the rise of the Left."
At the same time, senior Shas politicians are expressing concern that the party could find itself outside a future coalition. According to one source within the party, senior Likud-Beytenu politicians have indicated that Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni could be asked to enter the government instead of an ultra-Orthodox party.
The latest polls have the Likud-Beytenu garnering between 34 and 36 seats while the Right as a whole is expected to gain 66 seats.
On the Center-Left, Labor is polling at 16 to 18 seats, followed by Yesh Atid (9-11) and Hatnuah (9-10).