JERUSALEM: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his main coalition partner, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, plan to merge their right-wing parties ahead of Israel's Jan. 22 election, a cabinet minister said on Thursday.
"The fact they reached agreement should be welcomed by all of us," Environment Minister Gilad Erdan, a stalwart from Netanyahu's Likud party, told Israel's Channel Two television. "There will be a really clearly defined nationalist, rightist camp here."
Netanyahu and Lieberman, who heads the ultra nationalist Israel Beiteinu ("Israel is Our Home") party, scheduled a joint news conference for 8.00 pm (1800 GMT).
According to Channel Two, the new party would be called Likud Beiteinu - "The Likud is Our Home". Erdan said the merger would be subject to the approval of the Likud central committee.
Such a move, if confirmed, would further strengthen Netanyahu's hand in the parliamentary election. A television poll aired on Monday saw the Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu taking, respectively, 27 and 12 of parliament's 120 seats.
However, the merger might raise eyebrows abroad.
Lieberman, who lives in a Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank, has publicly reviled Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who the United States would like to see resume peace talks with the Netanyahu government.
"The prime minister is essentially signaling that he has chosen the extremist, pro-settlement right, that he has chosen to walk in place, not to make progress in the diplomatic process," Zehava Gal-On, head of the liberal Meretz party, told Israel's Army Radio.
Netanyahu has long sought broad-based and ideologically binding political alliances as an antidote to the diluted Israeli governance that can result from the preponderance of small parties which often pursue sectional interests.
Defence Minister Ehud Barak last year quit the helm of the centre-left Labour party, dumping it from the coalition, to form a more conservative party of a piece with Netanyahu's policies.
Netanyahu then further widened the coalition this year by joining forces with the centrist Kadima party, though that partnership soon broke up over the government's failure to push through a reform of military conscription laws granting exemptions en masse to ultra-Orthodox Jewish seminary students.
Netanyahu might try to tackle the draft issue again with the help of the secularist Lieberman, given what appears to have been their decision not to inform Shas, the powerful religious party in the coalition, about their merger in advance.
"I was absolutely surprised by this," the Shas leader Interior Minister Eli Yishai said, predicting the move would prompt left-leaning and Orthodox parties to form their own blocs.