Following his surprise announcement that he was dissolving the Zionist Union, Labor party leader Avi Gabbay reportedly reached out on Tuesday to popular former IDF chief Benny Gantz in a bid to join forces ahead of the April election.
Sources close to Gabbay explained to reporters in the aftermath of Gabbay’s announcement that it had been directed as a message to Gantz, whom polls place at the forefront of any possible center-left challenge to the front-runner, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Gabbay dropped the surprise announcement Tuesday in a statement in the Knesset, announcing that he was ending his party’s partnership with Hatnua party chair Tzipi Livni and that the two will not be running together in the 2019 race.
The statement stunned Labor and Hatnua lawmakers, including Livni herself, who heard it for the first time at a publicly-broadcast faction meeting in the Knesset.
Gabbay said he was disappointed with the partnership with Livni. He said he’d “hoped and believed that the new partnership would lead to our joint growth, to a real connection, and to mutual support. But the smart public has seen that this is not the case, and has drawn away.”
The move comes after Livni called last week for the country’s centrist and leftist parties to “set our egos aside” and unite in a bid to unseat Netanyahu. In an apparent dig at Gabbay, who has reportedly refused to consider a union with another party in which he is not number one, she said she would be the first to give up pride of place on a new unity slate.
Livni has also reportedly made one of the first attempts to cobble together a broad center-left coalition, reaching out to Gantz last week to suggest a political alliance.
According to Channel 10, Gantz rebuffed Livni, and was said to be reluctant to join forces with her because of her perceived shift in recent years to the political left.
Livni, once a Likud stalwart, joined the centrist Kadima party when it was established by Ariel Sharon in 2005, then rose to lead the party ahead of the 2009 elections. Ousted as leader in 2012, she broke away and formed her Hatnua party, which espoused more dovish positions.
Hatnua joined forces with Labor ahead of the 2015 election to run jointly as the Zionist Union.
Sources close to Gabbay indicated the dismantling of the Zionist Union may have come as a response to Gantz’s rebuffing of Livni, indicating to the former IDF chief that an alliance with Labor would not require including Livni’s Hatnua in the bargain.
There was no confirmation of an explicit conversation between Gabbay and Gantz on Tuesday, but officials speaking on condition of anonymity said the message had been conveyed.
In his Tuesday announcement, Gabbay said, “I’m not closing the door on other alliances down the road. On the contrary, I welcome them.”
Gabbay stressed that he wanted to form a united front against Netanyahu, but said he could not continue to work with Livni and questioned her “loyalty” to his leadership.
“I still believe in cooperation, in joining forces and uniting a large camp committed to change, but successful pacts require friendship, agreement, and loyalty to the chosen path,” Gabbay said, with a stony-faced Livni sitting beside him.
“It does not exist in this partnership,” he charged, refusing to make eye contact with the Hatnua chief.
Meeting with his Labor party MKs after the shock announcement, Gabbay continued to trash Livni, according to party sources. “I only got shit from her. I let her lead the opposition, and she had nothing positive to say about me,” Gabbay said, according to the sources quoted by Hebrew media.
He also told Labor MKs that “the Zionist Union is done,” and the party would now revert to being called Labor.
Gabbay’s dramatic gambit, and Livni’s attempts to form a center-left bloc, came as the Zionist Union faced turmoil over several recent polls showing Likud, which has 30 seats in the outgoing Knesset, far ahead of any would-be challengers, and Yesh Atid consistently beating Zionist Union in any electoral scenario. Some polls had put Zionist Union, which won 24 seats in the 2015 elections, as low as 8 seats.
Indeed, the only meaningful threat to a Likud election victory would come from Gantz’s Israel Resilience party teaming up with the Yesh Atid party. Together, a Channel 10 poll showed last week, they would win 26 seats, just one shy of Likud’s 27.
Partly in response to those polls, several Zionist Union lawmakers had been exploring a plan to leave its ranks, a party official said last week.
Directly addressing his MKs, some of whom responded with audible shock at the announcement over Livni’s forced departure, Gabbay promised Tuesday to “preserve the unity of the party” in order to mount a credible challenge to Netanyahu.
Responding to the announcement later, Livni said she was pleased that “the doubts have been dispelled and we — all of those who truly believe in effecting real change in the coming elections — can focus on the important national challenge that we are facing.” That challenge, she said, was to oust Netanyahu from power.
In 2015, Livni’s Hatnua party merged with Labor, which at the time was led by Isaac Herzog, to form the Zionist Union slate ahead of that year’s parliamentary elections. Gabbay defeated Herzog in a primary to take the helm of Labor in 2017.
In June, Gabbay announced that Livni would be appointed the Knesset opposition leader and that he would preserve her party’s alliance with Labor in the Zionist Union faction in the coming elections, which at the time were formally scheduled for November 2019. Until the deal with Gabbay was announced in June, it was unclear whether Livni would uphold her partnership with the Labor party through elections.
In most cases, the leader of the largest Knesset opposition party is the opposition leader, but Gabbay wasn’t able to take on the position since he was not a member of the Knesset. He was reportedly initially reluctant to give Livni the job for fear she would use the position to try and upstage him.
Responding to Livni’s ouster, Netanyahu said, “I don’t interfere in how the left divides its votes. What’s important to me is that the right will also establish the next government, and continue to lead the State of Israel. For this, we need to vote only Likud.”