Gabbay won’t run to keep Labor leadership, will stay in Knesset

Gabbay won’t run to keep Labor leadership, will stay in Knesset

Associates say he blames dire election performance on Lapid-Gantz merger and especially Blue and White’s last minute messaging that biggest party would form next coalition

Shalom Yerushalmi is the political analyst for Zman Israel, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew current affairs website

Labor chairman Avi Gabbay at the plenary Hall during the swearing-in ceremony of Knesset members on April 30, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)
Labor chairman Avi Gabbay at the plenary Hall during the swearing-in ceremony of Knesset members on April 30, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Labor chairman Avi Gabbay will not run again for the party leadership in primaries slated for November, but does not plan to quit the Knesset, party sources told Zman Yisrael, the Times of Israel’s Hebrew site, on Saturday.

Gabbay has refused interviews since the April 9 elections in which Labor won just six Knesset seats — a historic low for the storied party. A Labor source said that in private conversations, the faction leader has argued that the Yesh Atid-Israel Resilience merger ahead of the elections tipped the scales in favor of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and badly hurt Labor.

According to Gabbay, the associate said, the union of parties that make up Blue and White — Israel Resilience, Yesh Atid and Telem — deterred right-wing voters, who in turn responded to Benjamin Netanyahu’s “save me” calls and came to the polls in droves in order to hand Likud 35 seats.

“The Blue and White merger was unnecessary and caused tremendous damage,” Gabbay’s associate quoted him as having said in conversations since the election. According to the Labor chairman, the strategy of the center-left camp should have been the opposite: Each party should have run on its own. In such a scenario, Gabbay has argued that Netanyahu would not have had a pretext to “frighten” his base so much. Each party from the center and left would have accumulated its own seats, which together would have made up more than 45 — the total number of seats Blue and White (35), Labor (6) and Meretz (4) garnered in the April 9 vote.

Labor party chairman Avi Gabbay (podium) flanked by Tal Russo (right) and former Labor leader Amir Peretz (left) addresses supporters and media as the results in the general elections are announced in Tel Aviv, on April 9, 2019 (FLASH90)

Gabbay has generally opposed political mergers. He refused all initiatives to unite his Labor party with the left-wing Meretz. He also dismantled the Zionist Union, ending his partnership with Hatnua head Tzipi Livni, without warning her, on live television in January.

Sources close to Gabbay said he still defends his dismantling of the Zionist Union, only arguing that it was done too late.

The Labor leader has admitted that a number of statements he made after becoming party chairman offended his supporters (notably, “the Left has forgotten what it means to be a Jew”), but he is convinced that this is not the reason for his faction’s abysmal performance last month, an associate said.

Gabbay claims that Blue and White’s last minute campaign message that “the biggest party will form the coalition” was what decimated the Labor party, according to the associate.

The source said that after the election, Gabbay met with dozens of people, including members of the Labor Party, who told him that they were captivated by the Blue and White message and voted for Gantz’s party accordingly, thinking it was the only way to topple Netanyahu.

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)

Last week, the Labor Party moved toward holding a new leadership contest as soon as possible, calling a party conference for early next month, where members of its central committee will be asked to approve the primary for November.

MK and former Labor head Amir Peretz, by contrast, has called for a temporary leader to be chosen from among the party’s Knesset list, who would serve in the position until primaries can held closer to another general election.

While another former leader, MK Shelly Yachimovich, has said she will not run to lead the party again, Labor Knesset members Itzik Shmuli and Stav Shaffir have hinted at the possibility of running.

Gabbay, who served as a minister for Kulanu in 2015-2016 and then quit the party to join Labor, was elected to the Knesset for the first time in April’s election. Immediately after the vote, he made clear that he did not intend to quit the party altogether but to serve as an MK.

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