After backlash, Gabbay announces vote for Labor party chair, but not slate

After backlash, Gabbay announces vote for Labor party chair, but not slate

Leader says he won’t hold primary for list in upcoming election; move comes after lawmakers urge him to resign following his ‘contemptible’ talks to enter Netanyahu government

Avi Gabbay, leader of the Labor party, seen during a press conference in Tel Aviv on February 13, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Avi Gabbay, leader of the Labor party, seen during a press conference in Tel Aviv on February 13, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Labor chief Avi Gabbay announced Sunday that the party will hold a vote for chair of the party but not primaries for the slate in the upcoming election, after facing growing pressure to resign from his position as chairman as lawmakers from the party intensified their attacks on him.

“Ahead of the elections in September, I intend on Tuesday to propose to the party’s leadership that we hold elections for the head of the party at the earliest possible date and without additional primaries for the Knesset slate,” Gabbay said in a statement.

Channel 12 news reported later on Sunday that Gabbay told associates that if he is not elected to be head of the party, he will not remain as an MK.

The attacks on Gabbay intensified over the weekend and on Sunday after reports said he left the door open for immunity for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his discussions last week with the premier on joining the coalition, contrary to what he has claimed.

“To revive Labor we must hold primaries now,” MK Stav Shaffir said Saturday. “Gabbay needs to vacate his seat tomorrow morning and announce open primaries for the leadership.”

“The party is in its worst crisis in history, and the first step to rescue it is to hold general primaries for its leadership,” agreed MK Itzik Shmuli. “We can and need to get the party on its feet and restore the trust we have lost among many audiences.”

MK Amir Peretz also called for primaries to choose the next party chairman, but said they should be held not among the general public but only among the approximately 3,400 members of the party’s central committee.

MK’s Stav Shaffir and Amir Peretz at the announcement of the Labor party primary results in Tel Aviv on February 11, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

MK Shelly Yachimovich rejected reports that she had been open to the option of joining a Netanyahu government, tweeting Saturday: “I responded with an immediate and absolute ‘no,’ and am sure my colleagues did so too. I explained my position from a moral and political point of view, and I criticized [Gabbay] personally for the nerve he had to collect a senior portfolio for himself among the ruins,” she said, referring to the Finance Ministry promised to Gabbay in the talks.

Yachimovich made similar comments in a Sunday interview with Kan public radio. “I am concerned by the terrible state of my party. The last nail was the contemptible and lame negotiation conducted behind the backs of the faction members.”

Shelly Yachimovich leads a State Control Committee meeting in the Knesset on December 31, 2018. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

However, Yachimovich also told the radio station that had she known a potential agreement would completely take immunity for Netanyahu and reforms that “harm the rule of law” off the table, she would have “thought about entering the government.”

But Gabbay insisted Sunday that “not one of the party members with whom I talked said immediately that entering the government is out of the question.”

Speaking with Army Radio, he said “all the lie detectors in Israel beeped” when Yachimovich wrote her tweet.

Since his discussions with Netanyahu were made public, Gabbay has said the deal would have seen an end to any push to secure immunity from prosecution for the premier. However, officials with knowledge of the talks told Channel 12 news on Saturday that this was not true. While Netanyahu would not have pushed any new legislation to get immunity, he would have sought to receive it under current law, they said — and Labor would have been expected to back him.

Under current law, members of the Knesset do not receive automatic immunity, but can request and receive it from the legislature.

Avi Gabbay, leader of the Labor Party (C), with Labor party parliament members (R-L) Amir Peretz, Stav Shaffir, Itzik Shmuli and Shelly Yachimovich at a party meeting in Tel Aviv on February 13, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Sources close to Gabbay told Channel 12 the sides had never made any agreements regarding Labor’s support for immunity as he would have quit the government if Netanyahu were charged, and would not have supported any immunity push. Netanyahu faces three counts of fraud and breach of trust, and one of bribery — pending his pre-indictment hearing set for early October.

This appeared to be something of a departure from the claims Gabbay had previously made: Likud’s offer to Labor would have taken any attempt at an immunity gambit off the table.

Gabbay on Wednesday evening acknowledged that his center-left party had weighed, and ultimately rejected, a Likud offer to join the coalition in place of Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu, which was holding out and ultimately refused to sign an agreement.

Gabbay said the proposal included burying legislation to bypass the High Court of Justice and attempts to protect the prime minister from prosecution, and granting Labor a veto right in “any anti-democratic legislation.”

On Friday, Channel 12 reported that Netanyahu let Gabbay film him promising to never partner with Liberman, to assuage his fears the Likud head was only using him to pressure Liberman into joining the coalition.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to the media at the Knesset in Jerusalem on May 29, 2019, after being forced to disperse parliament and call new elections (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In a bid to overcome what they knew would be near-unshakable opposition in Labor to sitting with Netanyahu and the other far-right and ultra-Orthodox parties in the prospective coalition, Netanyahu and Gabbay tried to craft tailor-made portfolios that top Labor MKs would find hard to resist, the Channel 12 report said.

The Netanyahu-Gabbay deal ultimately failed, however, after news of the talks surfaced. Netanyahu also failed to persuade Liberman to join the coalition, leading to snap elections, now slated for September 17.

On Thursday, Gabbay sought to justify his talks with Netanyahu, saying that even though he had repeatedly vowed to not join a Netanyahu government during the election campaign, he seriously considered it after he was offered the means to help preserve Israeli democracy.

He said he had learned from the episode not to issue blanket statements after he spent the election campaign saying he would “never” sit with Netanyahu.

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