The happy couple
The happy coupleReuters

We will know only on January 22, or in the wee hours of January 23, whether the surprise electoral merger between Yisrael Beitenu and the Likud paid off politically.

Speaking on Channel 1's Mabat News Hour, Minister Limor Livnat compared the deal to Menahem Begin's master stroke in 1965, when he formed the Gahal bloc (Gush Herut Liberalim) between his own Herut Party and the Liberals that eventually morphed into the Likud and provided for the first time a credible alternative to the hegemony of the Labor movement in Israel.

I do not buy this comparison. Herut and the Liberals were two distinct movements with very different and even antagonistic economic philosophies - it worked because Begin was willing to defer on economic issues - and the Liberals were much more dovish than Herut. Herut brought the electoral muscle and the Liberals brought respectability to the marriage.

I would prefer to compare what we saw tonight to the 1968 merger between MAPAI, RAFI and Achdut Ha'Avoda that gave birth to the Israeli Labor Party. Avigdor Lieberman is returning home to Likud, as are Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau and the party's latest pickup, Yair Shamir, son of the late Prime Minister Yizhak Shamir. One can also mention Orli Levy, the daughter of David Levy, another Likud stalwart.

This is reminiscent of Shimon Peres, Moshe Dayan, Yizhak Navon, Chaim Herzog and others returning to a united Labor Party after following their mentor David Ben-Gurion out of MAPAI into the political desert in 1965 following the split between Ben-Gurion and his successor as Prime Minister, Levi Eshkol.

Like Lieberman, they rejoined the parent party in a minority status, but eventually worked their way to the top. The aforementioned RAFI leaders produced 3 presidents, a prime minister and 2 defense ministers. This is something that they could not have accomplished by remaining on their own.

Lieberman has probably made the same calculation. His electoral success won him the post of foreign minister, but if he aspires to the top job he needs to belong to Likud. By getting the number two spot on the joint list, Lieberman has effectively leapfrogged ministers such as Gideon Saar or Moshe Yaalon in a post-Netanyahu succession.

What does Netanyahu think that he has gained from the merger? For one thing he has made a splash after weeks in which he saw rival parties getting ink as some big names and retreads announced their adhesion to the Labor Party or to Lapid's Future Party.

This merger will be the talk of the media for the next few days. In addition, in the election campaign, the two parties will work together rather than being forced to attack each other.

Both Netanyahu and Lieberman mentioned the issue of governance. Israel has a fragmented political system and as part of the "grass is greener" complex, Israelis hanker for an essentially two-party system that would not be subject to "extortion" by the smaller parties.

By merging with Lieberman, Netanyahu gets a leg up on the system reform issue. He can now argue that he has taken the first major step towards rationalizing the party system.

Netanyahu may also be counting on the fact that the left will not be able to match the merger. Who is going to yield to whom is a question that already dominates conversation on the left.

The merger has little political downside, as it should not arouse dissatisfaction amongst supporters of either the Likud or Yisrael Beyteinu. Lieberman is well-regarded in his former party and never lost contact with it. Some may even believe that Lieberman provides a toughness that Netanyahu lacks. Lieberman's core constituency- immigrants from the former Soviet Union – are gratified that now one of theirs has a shot at becoming prime minister.

We still lack details about the terms of the merger and perhaps they have not been completely fleshed out by the principals. Candidates from both parties will be interspersed, it was said, on a joint list in the Knesset elections.

Here Livnat is correct. As in the Gahal Agreement she mentioned, both parties still retain their separate identity and choose their candidates separately – the Likud via a primary and Yisrael Beyteinu by a small team headed by Lieberman.

Some Likud ministers and Knesset members, while endorsing the merger in public and helping approve it in the Likud Central Committee, are going to be privately miffed. They have spent years cultivating registered Likud voters in advance of the inevitable primaries and now a joker has been tossed into the pack.