Opposition leader Tzipi Livni acknowledged Tuesday afternoon that the ousting of her Hatnua party from the Zionist Union faction by chairman Avi Gabbay came as a complete surprise, telling reporters she had received no forewarning and slamming him for not being willing to engage in a partnership.
Hours after the deed was done, Livni protested that he could at least have lifted up the phone and called her in for a discussion if he felt the alliance wasn’t working.
In the latest development to shake up Israel’s political scene ahead of April’s election, Labor party leader Gabbay announced earlier Tuesday, as Livni sat at his side, that he was dissolving his partnership with her, the two will not be running together, and he was disbanding the Labor-Hatnua partnership that constituted the Zionist Union. He made the announcement as Livni sat at his side, humiliating her as TV cameras rolled, without giving her advance notice.
To the shock of party lawmakers, and of Livni herself, at a faction meeting in the Knesset, Gabbay said that he had “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.”
“Last week, I said that our priorities must be the state, the party, and then myself,” Livni said hours later at a press conference. “What you heard today [Gabbay’s speech] is what I heard throughout this entire period: Me, me, me.
“I created the Zionist Union as a partnership between Labor and Hatnua along with Isaac Herzog,” she said, referring to the previous Labor leader, who is now the chief of the Jewish Agency for Israel.
“My partnership with Herzog brought 24 seats to the party,” she said, referring to the 2015 elections. “Gabbay was right on one thing today — there was no partnership between us. He doesn’t want a partnership. The way he ended things today proves that.
“The Zionist Union was based on a worldview regarding the identity of the State of Israel, was founded on a clear diplomatic and security path and a clear democratic agenda. All of that was disregarded after the election of the new chairman,” Livni said.
“You can now say ‘Labor’ and ‘Hatnua,'” she added. “Today’s event is over, and today a new day begins. We can’t allow ourselves to have ego battles. It’s time to look forward, to replacing the government.”
Gabbay’s move came 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 Prime Minister Benjamin 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.
She has since been rumored to be seeking to join forces with the new political party Israel Resilience, founded by former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz, who in turn is said to be wary of partnering her because she is regarded as too left-wing.
Gabbay, who in the wake of Livni’s ouster was also said to be courting Gantz, stressed on Tuesday that he too 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 stunned-looking 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 Zionist Union 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 them that “the Zionist Union is done,” and the party would now revert to being called Labor.
The Knesset House Committee later in the day approved the two parties’ request to split their factions, officially dissolving the union.
In June, Gabbay announced that Livni would be appointed the Knesset opposition leader and preserve her Hatnua party’s alliance with Labor in the Zionist Union faction in the coming elections, which at the time were formally scheduled for November 2019.
In most cases, the leader of the largest Knesset opposition party is the opposition leader, but Gabbay, who defeated Herzog in a primary to take the helm of Labor in 2017, 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.
Tuesday’s announcement puts an end to that agreement and will likely mean that Livni and five other Hatnua MKs will run on a separate ticket from the Labor party.
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 Hatnua, which espoused more dovish positions from the start.
Gabbay’s dramatic gambit Tuesday, and Livni’s attempts to form a center-left bloc, come as the Zionist Union faces turmoil over several 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 have put Zionist Union as low as 8 seats.
Indeed, the only meaningful threat to a Likud election victory would come from Gantz’s Israel Resilience teaming up with 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 have 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 of Livni’s enforced departure, Gabbay promised Tuesday to “preserve the unity of the party” in order to mount a credible challenge to Netanyahu.
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.”