JERUSALEM — Israel's prime minister announced Thursday that he is joining forces with his hard-line foreign minister in upcoming elections, instantly creating a hawkish new bloc that appears poised to lead the country.
The deal between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party and Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu makes the new ticket the clear front-runner in the January elections, giving the ultranationalist foreign minister, a staunch opponent of concessions to the Palestinians, a major say in any future peace efforts.
It also raises speculation that centrist opposition parties might be compelled to unite as well.
"We are facing great challenges, and this is the time to unite forces for the sake of Israel. Therefore Likud and Yisrael Beitenu will run together on the same ticket in the next elections," Mr. Netanyahu said at a news conference.
"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," he said.
Israelis vote for political parties, not individual candidates. The leader of the bloc with the most seats in the 120-member parliament usually serves as prime minister of a coalition government.
Likud has been leading in opinion polls, but the resurgent Labor Party has been making gains by criticizing the outgoing government's record on economic and social issues.
Analysts suggested that Mr. Netanyahu took Thursday's step to head off the possibility of a broad centrist bloc led by Labor.
Together with Yisrael Beitenu, Likud could control more than 40 parliamentary seats, based on recent polls, making it roughly twice as large as Labor.
But polls have suggested that even with a center-left alliance, Mr. Netanyahu's bloc still would win.
Bomber had five partners, minister says
SOFIA — Bulgaria's interior minister says up to five people assisted a bomber who killed five Israeli tourists and a Bulgarian bus driver in July.
In an interview for the 24 Chassa daily Thursday, Tsvetan Tsvetanov said "between three and five foreigners" were involved in the bombing plotted "outside Bulgaria over a period of a year and a half." No arrests have been made. The bomber also died.
Mr. Tsvetanov said "lots of evidence" has been collected but added that the "time has not yet come to voice any concrete accusation against the people or groups who performed this terrorist act."
"We have to be very cautious as national security is concerned," he said.
Bulgarian officials have declined to back up Israel's claims that Iran and the terrorist group Hezbollah played roles.
Pope's ex-butler starts prison term
VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI's former butler started his 18-month prison sentence Thursday in a Vatican City cell for the theft of papal correspondence.
A statement from the Vatican secretary of state's office left open the possibility of a papal pardon if Paolo Gabriele repents and asks the pope for forgiveness.
The statement Thursday said the deadline to appeal the Oct. 6 conviction by a Vatican tribunal had elapsed.
It described as "mild and fair" the punishment given to Gabriele, who used to serve Benedict his meals and help him get ready for ceremonies.
It noted that Benedict, as sovereign head, has the power to pardon.
Dismissing suspicions of a plot, the Vatican said Gabriele acted alone in pilfering the documents and giving them to an Italian journalist, who published them.
Threats of dismissal breaking wildcat strikes
JOHANNESBURG — Return to work or you're fired.
That ultimatum from South African mining companies to strikers appears to be getting the desired result, persuading thousands of workers to settle for less than their original demands in order to keep their jobs.
Labor unrest in South Africa's mines, which until recently showed little sign of abating, appears to be tapering off in the face of employers' tough stance against wildcat strikes.
South Africa's Chamber of Mines, representing mine owners, announced Thursday that it had agreed with the National Union of Mineworkers to raise gold miners' monthly salaries by up to about $57, in addition to a pay raise of up to 10 percent that miners got in July, weeks before wildcat strikes hit South Africa's platinum and gold mines.
The raises fall far short of what most strikers are demanding, about $1,800 in monthly pay. Most miners earn about $500.
Historic arch getting five-star makeover
LONDON — A London landmark that is a ceremonial passageway from Trafalgar Square toward Buckingham Palace will be converted from office space into a luxury hotel, Britain's government said Thursday.
The Admiralty Arch was leased for 99 years to the development company Prime Investors Capital, which plans to turn it into a five-star, 100-bedroom hotel.
The government will rent the building for nearly $100 million and grant the public greater access to the historic site, Cabinet Minister Francis Maude said.
Though the arch originally housed offices, the building is empty and needs extensive restoration.
Prime Investors Capital CEO Rafael Serrano said the developers are committed to the original design of the arch's architect, Aston Webb, and will reinstate lost features seen on original drawings from 1910.
The deal depends on the Westminster City Council granting planning permission for the conversion of the building.
• From wire dispatches and staff reports