c.2019 New York Times News Service

CAIRO — Israel’s two leading centrist candidates for prime minister, Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid, have joined forces to try to defeat Benjamin Netanyahu, the right-wing leader who has led the country for a decade, in a move that makes the April 9 elections far more competitive.

Gantz, a retired military chief of staff who entered politics only weeks ago, and Lapid, a former finance minister who founded the Yesh Atid (There Is a Future) party in 2012, agreed to take turns as prime minister if elected, with Gantz holding the job for the first 2 1/2 years before yielding it to Lapid.

Campaigning separately, the two had espoused many of the same goals, addressing problems like overcrowded hospitals, traffic-choked roads and a housing crunch while promising a cautious approach to peacemaking with the Palestinians. Their shared critique of Netanyahu — that he had been corrupted by his long tenure and had sown discord in the Israeli populace to keep his hold on power — also made for a natural fit.

Polls had shown a Gantz-Lapid merger posing a credible threat to Netanyahu, who responded with an online campaign aimed at depicting the former general as a liberal. “Gantz: Weak left,” Netanyahu’s videos warned. “Netanyahu: Strong right.”

Although his Likud party remains a force in the polls, Netanyahu may be at his most vulnerable point: He is awaiting the attorney general’s decision on whether to indict him on corruption charges.

For Lapid, a former television personality whose party came in second place in its first legislative election, in 2013, the power-sharing agreement is a comedown. He had built a strong party organization and had vowed to run only in the top spot in any merger.

But Gantz’s military record provides security-minded Israeli voters reassurances that Lapid cannot. And with Gantz’s party, Israel Resilience, gaining support largely at Yesh Atid’s expense, Lapid apparently was left with no choice if he wanted to defeat Netanyahu.

The two leaders said they would make a formal announcement later Thursday.