The Likud Central Committee officially approved by a large majority recently the merger with Yisrael Beiteinu ahead of the coming Knesset election.

Before the open vote, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the committee delegates, who had gathered at the Tel Aviv Exhibition Grounds.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud party (R) and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman of the Yisrael Beiteinu party shake hands at a joint press conference this week announcing that the two parties are joining forces ahead of the upcoming Israeli general elections. PHOTO / Miriam Alster – FLASH90.

In his speech, Netanyahu referred to recent assertions that Yisrael Beiteinu head and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman had come to Likud to take Netanyahu’s place in the future.

“I’ve heard all sorts of talk in recent days about heirs. I have news for you. I intend to lead for many more years,” Netanyahu said. “I believe that at this time it is essential that the nationalist camp unite forces, and that is the reason that I asked Avigdor Lieberman to run on a single joint list with us. I want to be clear. The Likud will remain an independent party and will continue to be a nationalist and liberal party. It will continue to be a movement for all of Israel’s citizens. The unity will not change Likud, but it will change the State of Israel.”

Netanyahu’s comments were echoed by Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar. The two parties will remain independent and will keep their separate platforms after the elections, Sa’ar told Army Radio. The Likud will remain a democratic party and will maintain its values, Sa’ar said.

He added that what had been agreed at this stage was how the joint list would be presented at the elections and which slots would be reserved for MKs from which parties and sectors.

Meanwhile, the deeper issues concerning religion and state, the system of government and controversial legislation will be discussed after the elections.

Earlier, Improvement of Government Services Minister Michael Eitan, who led the opposition within Likud to the merger deal, failed to present on time the 400 signatures required to force the vote to be taken by a secret ballot. During the open vote, only several dozen delegates opposed the deal, out of the thousands of delegates in attendance. After the vote, Eitan said that he accepted the committee’s decision.

Lieberman called the committee’s approval of the merger a “historic and important step that will strengthen the State of Israel, which will be managed by experienced and united leadership.”

Other Yisrael Beiteinu officials also praised the vote.

“This evening, changing the system of government in Israel began,” Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said. “No more blackmail, no more divisiveness, no more instability.”

Opposition Leader Shaul Mofaz of Kadima, who temporarily joined Netanyahu in a coalition last spring, was highly critical of the merger and suggested that Israel’s left and centrist parties join together.

“This is a wake-up call for the entire center to unite and put ego aside,” Mofaz said.

A poll conducted by a Lieberman campaign advisor suggests that the new party could gain 51 seats in the new election; currently both parties hold a combined 42 seats.

BY MATI TUCHFELD / JNS.org

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in Israel Hayom and is distributed with the permission of that newspaper