Labor leader Gabbay calls for early elections ‘as soon as possible’

As Netanyahu battles to save weakened coalition, opposition and coalition partners demand snap elections early next year

Labor Party chairman Avi Gabbay in Ashkelon, November 12, 2018. (Ra'anan Cohen)
Labor Party chairman Avi Gabbay in Ashkelon, November 12, 2018. (Ra'anan Cohen)

Labor leader Avi Gabbay on Saturday called for new national elections to be held “as soon as possible” in the wake of Avigdor Liberman’s sudden resignation as defense minister last week over the Gaza ceasefire.

“We are calling for new elections now, as soon as possible,” Gabbay said at a cultural event in Tzur Hadassah according to reports in Hebrew-language media.

“The time has come for Israel to have a government that offers hope,” he said. “Elections are needed to bring Israel back to the path of courage and initiative.”

The departure of Liberman and his Yisrael Beytenu party, announced on Wednesday, left Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition with a 61-59 majority in the 120-seat Knesset. The religious-nationalist Jewish Home party then quickly declared it would topple the government if its leader Naftali Bennett was not given the defense portfolio.

With no Jewish Home, Netanyahu’s coalition would shrink from 61 seats to just 53. The government must have the backing of at least half of the 120 seat Knesset to survive no-confidence motions.

Likud MK Yoav Kisch at the Knesset on January 17, 2018 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

On Saturday, Likud MK Yoav Kisch said that Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon was the only one who could decide whether elections would be held early next year.

Speaking at a cultural event in Shoham, Kisch warned it would be a “mistake on Kahlon’s part to push for early elections while the 2019 budget still needs to be amended.”

Earlier this week, Kahlon and fellow coalition partner Interior Minister Aryeh Deri (Shas) urged Netanyahu to call early elections, citing the turmoil in the prime minister’s government.

Kahlon, the Kulanu party chief, said it was the “most responsible course of action” in the wake of Liberman’s resignation.

Deri, leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, similarly told the prime minister that holding elections earlier than planned was “in the best interest of the state.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman in the Knesset, on October 24, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Elections are formally set for November 2019, but it is now expected they will be held between March and May, with Netanyahu pushing for a later date and other parties seeking an earlier one.

On Friday, a Netanyahu confidant told the Haaeretz daily the prime minister was hoping to delay the dissolution of his cabinet by several weeks so that he could confirm the appointment of the next IDF chief of staff and the Israel police chief.

Coalition sources told the paper they believed Netanyahu still hoped to make changes to election laws in order to lower the electoral threshold, though he made no mention of the matter during his discussions with party leaders on Friday.

However, Netanyahu said in a Friday statement that he was working to preserve his right-wing coalition, and warned that new elections could see a left-wing government come to power. In the statement, he stressed the importance of not repeating the “historical mistake” of electing a left-wing government in 1992 that brought on the “Oslo disaster.”

He also made a series of telephone calls to coalition chiefs telling them there was no reason to dismantle the coalition at this stage.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Minister of Education Naftali Bennett attend the weekly cabinet meeting at the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem, Tuesday, August 30, 2016. (Abir Sultan, Pool via AP)

In his meeting with Bennett, the prime minister said that rumors that he had already decided to call early elections were “false,” according to the statement.

But a Jewish Home source later said that it became clear that early elections must be held in the wake of Kahlon’s endorsement. The source said there was “no possibility of continuing the current government,” and said head of coalition parties would meet on Sunday to set a date for the vote.

The political crisis began after an undercover Israeli raid in the Gaza Strip early last week went awry. The raid led to two days of intense cross-border fighting. Gaza’s Hamas rulers fired hundreds of rockets at southern Israel, while Israeli warplanes targeted scores of Hamas military sites in Gaza.

After two days, Egypt brokered an informal truce between Israel and Hamas. Though Netanyahu averted a war, he drew blistering criticism from both the right and left for his decision to accept the terms of the agreement after the unprecedentedly intense two-day rocket barrage on Israel’s south.

Liberman resigned in protest on Wednesday. In his resignation letter, the outgoing defense minister said Netanyahu had capitulated to terrorism.

“What we are doing right now is buying quiet for a heavy price with no long-term plan to reduce violence toward us,” he said in the letter. “To put it lightly, our response was drastically lacking to the 500 rockets fired at us.”

AP contributed to this report

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