Former Labor chairman Isaac Herzog on Wednesday announced he would remain the Knesset opposition leader, at the request of the new party leader Avi Gabbay.
Gabbay, who is not a sitting Knesset member and therefore cannot assume the post, had appealed to Herzog to retain the role.
“In light of the special situation, which is a rare one, in which you are the leader of the party and I am the leader of the opposition, I am responding to your request out of a real desire that you succeed,” said Herzog at Gabbay’s official swearing-in as party chief in Tel Aviv.
Urging all party members to unify behind Gabbay and replace Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, Herzog pledged to “help you [Gabbay] in every way.”
He said he had spoken to Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and all opposition party leaders before his announcement.
Gabbay thanked Herzog for staying on in the position, which he had offered to the sitting opposition leader despite Herzog’s endorsement of Amir Peretz in the second-round vote.
Newcomer Gabbay, a former minister in the center-right Kulanu party, was elected Monday as the new chairman of the Labor Party, beating veteran lawmaker and former leader Amir Peretz in a dramatic turn of events for the long-embattled party.
Herzog was dethroned from the party leadership a week earlier, receiving just 16 percent of the vote in the first round of the primary. He has served as opposition leader since 2013.
At his official swearing-in on Wednesday, Gabbay said he was heartened by polls on Tuesday that saw the Labor-led Zionist Union faction bounding back into second place, behind Likud but ahead of centrist Yesh Atid.
“We will go back to being the party where all Israelis feel at home,” said Gabbay of Israel’s oldest political party. “I already hear rumblings of this in the public. At the same time, we’re only at the beginning of our journey.”
Since he is not a Knesset member, Gabbay will likely spend the better part of the next few years campaigning for elections, currently scheduled for 2019. He will not be permitted to address the Knesset plenum, but will be able to lead the weekly Zionist Union faction meeting, a regular route for political leaders to make headlines.
On Tuesday, Gabbay celebrated his surprise victory as head of the largest opposition party by kicking off what he called a campaign to unseat Netanyahu and win 30 Knesset seats.
“The State of Israel is headed to elections, we just don’t know the date,” he told activists and journalists in Tel Aviv. In a direct challenge to Netanyahu’s Likud, Gabbay said “we will replace him. We will bring in the 30 [Knesset] seats necessary to replace him.
“The campaign to replace Netanyahu begins today.”
A former minister in Netanyahu’s government, Gabbay quit in May 2016, after coalition talks brought the Yisrael Beytenu party into the government, with a dramatic tirade accusing the coalition of leading Israel on a path to destruction.
That breakout moment for Gabbay, a relatively unknown minister who was not elected to Knesset but rather appointed as an external candidate by party leader Moshe Kahlon, was followed by his crossing the political aisle and joining the fight for the Labor leadership.
The primaries came after Labor had plummeted over the past year in opinion polls, receiving a projected 10-12 seats (combined with the Hatnua party that makes up the Zionist Union faction), down from its current 24 seats.
Gabbay’s leadership will likely determine whether the center-left party, plagued by internal divisions, is able to become the main challenger to Netanyahu’s Likud in the next elections, and, consequently, whether it could seize the premiership.
Polls conducted on Tuesday saw the Zionist Union climb in the number of seats it’s projected to win, though neither saw the Gabbay-led party receiving the 30 seats he predicted.
According to the Channel 2 poll, if elections were to be held today, Likud would win 25 seats, Zionist Union 20, Yesh Atid 18, Jewish Home 13, the Joint (Arab) List 13, Kulanu 8, United Torah Judaism 7, Yisrael Beytenu 6, Shas 5, and Meretz 5.
A Channel 10 poll had Zionist Union doing even better. According to the station’s poll, Likud would win 29 seats, just one less than its current 30-seat showing. Zionist Union would win 24, matching its current showing. Yesh Atid would win 16, Jewish Home 14, Joint (Arab) List 8, Yisrael Beytenu 7, Kulanu 6, United Torah Judaism 6, Shas 5 and Meretz 5.
A poll released on Wednesday by the Walla news website, however, saw Labor drop to 19 seats, behind Yesh Atid with 21 and the Likud party with 25. A separate survey conducted for the ultra-Orthodox Kol Berama radio station on Wednesday similarly saw Labor receive 19 seats, Yesh Atid 21 and Likud 29.
Surveys conducted just a week earlier indicated that a Labor Party under Gabbay or Peretz’s leadership would receive no more than 15-18 seats in the 120-seat Knesset.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.