When I interviewed Professor Avi Shlaim last month, he said that the current Israeli government was "is the most right-wing, the most hawkish, the most uncompromising … in Israel's entire history". That could be about to get worse. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has announced that he is to join forces with hard-line coalition partner Avigdor Lieberman, who is currently the foreign minister. Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party will merge with Lieberman's ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu. The new party will be called Likud Beiteinu, meaning "The Likud is our Home".
"We are asking for a mandate from the public to lead Israel against security threats, above all preventing Iran from arming itself with nuclear weapons and the struggle against terror," Netanyahu told a joint press conference, making his priorities for the new government clear.
Based on current numbers, the merger looks highly likely to result in electoral victory in January. An opinion poll on Monday predicted that Likud would get 27 seats and Yisrael Beitenu 12. Together, this would give a clear majority of 40 of parliament's 120 seats, roughly double the number that Labor is expected to win.
It is a seriously worrying prospect for anyone who still nurtures hope of a diplomatic solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Lieberman, who lives on an illegal Israeli settlement in the West Bank, is a staunch opponent of concessions to Palestinians. He has called for Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Palestinian Authority, to be removed. The merger of the two parties will give him a prominent role in any peace talks – despite the fact that he has publicly cast doubt on whether peace with Palestinians is possible.
His inflammatory rhetoric does not stop there. In the past, Lieberman has called for the execution of Israeli Arab Members of the Knesset who met with the leaders of Hamas. He has also pushed a series of anti-Arab laws, including a failed attempt to force Israeli citizens to sign an oath of loyalty or have their citizenship revoked.
Thus far, despite implementing right-wing, hawkish policies, Netanyahu has at least attempted to portray himself as a moderate leader. This merger finally lays that notion to rest. Incorporating Lieberman as his second-in-command, with Yisrael Beitenu members in key government posts, will cement and accelerate the isolationist and discriminatory trend of recent years. As Zehava Gal-On, head of the liberal Meretz party, told Israel's Army Radio: "The prime minister is essentially signalling that he has chosen the extremist, pro-settlement right, that he has chosen … not to make progress in the diplomatic process."
The Labor leader, Shelly Yachimovich, said that the new coalition is "racist" and called for "moderate voters on the right" to unite behind her party. In the past, she has been criticised for failing to make her policies clear. Indeed, if there is any glimmer of hope, it is that this right-wing alliance may force left-wing and centrist parties to mobilise and form their own ideological bloc. However, even if that happens, it is unlikely such an alliance has time to gain sufficient support before the election. With Lieberman's position cemented, Netanyahu will no longer be able to say that his foreign minister's statements do not represent the government, as he has in the past. Aggressive foreign policy, with war for Iran high on the agenda, and continued deadlock for Palestinians, look set to be the defining features of the next government.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.