September elections

Barak laments Labor-Gesher merger, hopes it’s still ‘reversible’

Former PM says alliance with right-wing politician could be the ‘nail on the coffin’ for the party he once chaired… and later left to remain in Netanyahu’s government

Former Israeli Prime Minister and leader of Israel Democratic party Ehud Barak speaks at the Party's Election campaign event in Tel Aviv on July 17, 2019. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)
Former Israeli Prime Minister and leader of Israel Democratic party Ehud Barak speaks at the Party's Election campaign event in Tel Aviv on July 17, 2019. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

Israel Democratic Party leader Ehud Barak on Friday lamented the Labor Party’s merger with Orly Levy-Abekasis’s Gesher, saying it could mark the “nail on the coffin” for the storied center-left political party he formerly chaired.

“I hope it’s still reversible, but the union could be the nail on the coffin of the Labor Party,” said Barak. The union with Levy-Abekasis “is essentially giving up on replacing the government and is opening the door for joining up with Netanyahu,” he added.

Labor Party leader Amir Peretz on Thursday announced a merger with Levy-Abekasis’s Gesher party, which failed to enter the Knesset in the April elections, seemingly marking a rightward shift for his party and possibly ruling out joining forces with the left-wing Meretz party or Barak’s Israel Democratic Party.

Barak, an ex-prime minister who formerly led Labor, announced his political comeback last month after a six-year hiatus, launching the Israel Democratic Party. He has called repeatedly for parties on the center-left to run on a joint list, which he says is necessary to unseat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Gesher party chair Orly Levy-Abekasis (L) and Labor head Amir Peretz announce their joint run in the September election, in Tel Aviv, July 18, 2019. (Roy Alima/Flash90)

While no alliances have been formed, a number of parties previously expressed interest and Peretz had signaled he would be willing to let Barak lead the joint slate in order to bring about the united bloc. Barak also said he would be willing to give up the top slot on a joint list.

Besides Labor, Barak signaled his interest in teaming up with the left-wing Meretz party and former foreign minister Tzipi Livni.

But as Labor and Gesher joined forces on Thursday, those plans appeared to unravel.

Peretz and Barak had met last week to discuss the idea of a merger. But the Ynet news site reported Thursday that Peretz had told associates in private conversations that his party will not run alongside Barak in the upcoming election.

A Channel 12 report this week cited senior officials in both Labor and the left-wing Meretz as saying Barak’s ties to Jeffrey Epstein, who is a suspect in a US sex trafficking scandal, had significantly lowered their parties’ chances of joining forces with him.

Epstein has been indicted for creating what prosecutors described as a network of underage girls whom he molested and exploited in the early 2000s.

In this file photo from July 30, 2008, Jeffrey Epstein, center, appears in court in West Palm Beach, Florida. (Uma Sanghvi/Palm Beach Post via AP, File)

Barak said Wednesday he had cut all ties with Epstein, days after saying he had asked his lawyers to explore options to dissolve their limited partnership.

Livni has also rejected offers from Peretz and from Barak, the Ynet news site reported Thursday. That likely means that Livni will not be rejoining politics after quitting earlier this year, despite recent reports to the contrary.

Livni retired ahead of the April elections after then-Labor leader Avi Gabbay announced at a press conference, alongside her and on live television, that he was ousting her and her Hatnua party and dismantling their Zionist Union alliance.

Zionist Union chairman Avi Gabbay (L) announces the shock break up of the Zionist Union as his erstwhile partner, head of opposition Tzipi Livni, looks on, during a party faction meeting in the Knesset on January 1, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Both Peretz and Barak have previously led Labor, and Barak wrested control of the party from Peretz in 2007.

In 2011, while serving as defense minister under Netanyahu, Barak split with Labor in order to remain in the coalition government despite the objection of most of the party.

Meretz decries alliance, Blue and White welcomes it

The newly elected Labor leader Peretz was hoping to breathe new life into the ailing party after it fell to its worst-ever outcome in the April elections, receiving just six seats under former leader Avi Gabbay.

Levy-Abekasis, a former Knesset member with the right-wing Yisrael Beytenu, split off to form her own party, Gesher, earlier this year, but failed to make it into the Knesset in April.

Though she largely focuses on social issues, the daughter of former Likud foreign minister David Levy has remained largely identified with the right, and the merger was largely seen as a move by Labor to push for more support from the political center rather than from Meretz, which is further to the left.

Gesher party chair Orly Levy-Abekasis (R) and Labor head Amir Peretz arrive at a press conference announcing their joint run in the September election, in Tel Aviv, July 18, 2019. (Roy Alima/Flash90)

Gesher is expected to receive three seats in the joint slate’s first 10 spots, Channel 12 reported. It is not clear where exactly party members will be placed.

At the press conference, Levy-Abekasis said she had received merger offers from right and left but “when the offer came from Amir it felt natural to me to bring down the walls and look at what unites and connects us… it’s time we let go of the terms ‘right’ and ‘left’ and come together for the good of the country.”

She added that some offers had been “more enticing and safer, but I preferred to go with someone I could trust. He’s proven himself in the past.”

Labor had been widely reported to be nearing a merger with Meretz, with both parties struggling to remain relevant ahead of elections. However, multiple Hebrew-language reports Thursday said that Peretz had informed Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz that the parties will not merge ahead of the September 17 vote, following weeks of negotiations.

Meretz party leader Nitzan Horowitz arrives to cast his vote in the party’s primaries at a polling station in Tel Aviv on July 11, 2019. (Flash90)

Meretz lamented the decision and accused Peretz in a statement of “repeating the mistake of [former Labor chairman] Avi Gabbay and destroying the possibility of mergers in the left-wing bloc.”

The centrist Blue and White party welcomed the Labor-Gesher merger, saying it would “prevent thousands of votes from being lost.” It added that after the elections it would seek to invite both Labor and the ruling Likud party — without Netanyahu — to a unity government.

A Blue and White-Gesher merger was ruled out after Levy-Abekasis demanded to be No. 5 on the joint slate and to receive two other slots, down the list, demands that the party couldn’t meet, Channel 12 reported Tuesday.

Likud merely said in a statement that it “continues not to intervene in how the left divides its votes.”

MK Orly Levy-Abekasis speaks during a conference of the Israeli Television News Company in the Jerusalem International Convention Center (ICC) on September 3, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Levy-Abekasis, who began the previous election cycle as a rising star, lost momentum fast and her party ended up failing to clear the minimum electoral threshold. She founded the socio-economic minded party after breaking off from Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu in 2016 and flying solo as an independent in the Knesset opposition for three years.

During her nearly 10 years in the Knesset, she served as deputy speaker and advocated on behalf of at-risk youth, gender equality and sexual assault victims.

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