Labor chief admits weighing, then rejecting, last-minute offer to join coalition

Avi Gabbay says party received Likud proposal on Tuesday which included ministries, ‘steps to safeguard democracy,’ but decided against the move

Raoul Wootliff is the Times of Israel's former political correspondent and producer of the Daily Briefing podcast.

Labor Party chairman Avi Gabbay addresses supporters and media, as the results in the elections are announced at the party headquarters in Tel Aviv, on April 9, 2019. (Flash90)
Labor Party chairman Avi Gabbay addresses supporters and media, as the results in the elections are announced at the party headquarters in Tel Aviv, on April 9, 2019. (Flash90)

Hours before the deadline for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to form a new government — and amid efforts to dissolve the Knesset and force new elections if he fails to do so — Labor leader Avi Gabbay on Wednesday evening admitted his center-left party weighed, and ultimately rejected, a Likud offer a day earlier to join the coalition instead of Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu.

“Over the past month the Labor Party has received several offers to join the government,” Gabbay tweeted after a 30-minute-long media frenzy over reports that Netanyahu had offered him to be a senior minister in the new government in a desperate bid to avoid new elections.

“The latest offer yesterday included a promise of a number of steps to safeguard democracy including nixing legislation to bypass [the High Court], for immunity [for the prime minister], personally motivated legislation and more,” Gabbay said.

“Members of the faction discussed the offer and we decided not to accept,” he said.

According Channel 12, the offer included four cabinet portfolios, including the Finance Ministry, and no legislative push for immunity from prosecution for Netanyahu. The report said the prime minister committed that no bid to limit High Court oversight of the legislature would be advanced. Walla news reported that the offer was for Gabbay to be defense minister, not finance.

Gabbay and Labor no. 2 Tal Russo were considering the proposition, while MKs Shelly Yachimovich and Itzik Shmuli were staunchly opposed, the Channel 12 report said.

In response to the initial reports, former Labor leader MK Shelly Yachimovich said in a tweet, “I warn anyone in my party who would even consider taking advantage of ruining the party through joining Netanyahu’s corrupt government, they will pay a heavy price.”

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)

MK Itzik Shmuli, who finished first in the party’s primary election, said: “I have no intention of serving in a government under Benjamin Netanyahu… and providing a defensive wall to corruption. I call on my colleagues to reject this offer outright.”

Labor veteran MK Amir Peretz, another former party leader, tweeted: “We will not be Netanyahu’s life jacket. Any other option would be a breach of everything we promised the public. We will do what we promised.”

On Tuesday, Peretz and Labor Party director-general Eran Hermoni penned a letter to Gabbay calling on him to schedule a vote within 30 days to choose a new party leader due to the looming possibility that Israel will hold its second election in a matter of months.

Gabbay led the Labor Party to its worst ever electoral result of six seats in April’s elections and has told associates that he will not run again for the faction’s top spot. Gabbay served as a minister for Kulanu in 2015-2016 and then quit the party to join Labor and 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.

Likud MK Miki Zohar told Channel 13 on Wednesday said his party tried to lure away two of Labor’s six MKs, knowing full well most of the party would reject joining the coalition, in order to gain a majority in the Knesset.

“The strategy here is very simple,” he said.

Likud believed Gabbay “is finished in the Labor Party” in light of the last election’s results. Meanwhile Russo, who Gabbay dropped into the no. 2 spot using his chairman’s privilege, was seen as someone who could possibly be swayed.

“It was clear the four others would say no, and we could have possibly won Tal Russo and Avi Gabbay and then we’d have 62 [seats].”

Knesset House Committee Chairman MK Miki Zohar (Likud) leads a discussion on canceling the 2013 law limiting the number of ministers, at the Knesset, May 21, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Netanyahu faces a Wednesday night deadline to form a government. He has yet to ink a deal with any of his prospective partners, and progress has stalled amid an impasse between the secular Yisrael Beytenu party and ultra-Orthodox parties on the question of a bill regulating the military draft among the ultra-Orthodox. The Knesset, however, is expected to pass a law dissolving parliament if Netanyahu fails to reach an eleventh-hour deal, preventing President Reuven Rivlin from offering another MK a shot at coalition building.

Hours before the vote, Likud and Yisrael Beytenu continued to blame each other for the crisis. Parties not involved in the coalition talks, including Labor, threatened to filibuster the Knesset session to foil the dissolution and enable the possibility of another lawmaker being given a chance at coalition building, though Knesset regulations could restrict their debate time.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and President Reuven Rivlin attend the Israel Prize ceremony in Jerusalem, on Israel’s 71st Independence Day, May 9, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Theoretically, the motion could still be pulled at any time before the final vote if a compromise to the coalition crisis is found. The prime minister has until midnight to announce a new coalition.

Responding to the reports that Gabbay had been offered the Finance Ministry, current Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, leader of the Kulanu party, threatened that he “won’t be in the coalition without the finance portfolio.”

The Likud party swiftly responded that the finance portfolio would go to Kahlon.

In response to the Labor offer, Blue and White’s Yair Lapid tweeted: “Even in Israeli politics there is a limit to the repugnance the public can take. I cannot believe you will do such a thing.”

read more:
Never miss breaking news on Israel
Get notifications to stay updated
You're subscribed