Labor leader says party will merge with Meretz or Blue and White before election

Labor leader says party will merge with Meretz or Blue and White before election

After bringing Labor to worst-ever showing in April election, and negotiating with Netanyahu to join coalition, embattled chairman seeks center-left alliance

Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay at a discussion on a bill to dissolve the parliament, at the Knesset, in Jerusalem on May 29, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)
Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay at a discussion on a bill to dissolve the parliament, at the Knesset, in Jerusalem on May 29, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Embattled Labor Party chairman Avi Gabbay on Friday said the center-left party would merge with either the left-wing Meretz or centrist Blue and White ahead of the September elections.

“In the upcoming elections, the center-left camp must run with three parties rather than five,” he told a conference organized by the Berl Katznelson Center in Tel Aviv. “Labor will merge with either Meretz or Blue and White.”

He also called for Blue and White to scrap its “stupid” rotation deal, under which leaders Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid would share the premiership if they win the election, according to Channel 13.

The Labor Party leader urged center-left politicians to put aside their personal interests to increase their chances of ousting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud from power, days after he admitted to seriously considering joining the premier’s coalition.

His talks with the Likud stoked fury in the Labor Party, which under Gabbay’s leadership received its worst-ever showing of six seats in the April elections.

The party is expected to hold a leadership primary in a month.

Meretz has publicly backed a merger with Labor in an offer that has been met with support by some high-ranking members of the Gabbay-led party.

Meretz party leader MK Tamar Zandberg at a faction meeting at the Knesset, on May 27, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Gabbay on Wednesday evening acknowledged that he had weighed, and ultimately rejected, a Likud offer to join the coalition in place of Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu, who was holding out and ultimately refused to sign an agreement, initiating snap elections slated for September 17.

On Thursday night, Gabbay defended his negotiations with Netanyahu, saying the prime minister had agreed to his demands that there be a change in the government’s rhetoric toward the country’s judiciary, which opponents of the premier say he has allowed to come under attack as he weighed legislation to grant himself immunity from prosecution.

The Labor head said that the prime minister had offered him “veto power” on any of the government’s measures regarding the court system, which Gabbay said deserved to be at least considered. Gabbay also said he had learned from the episode not to issue blanket statements after he spent the election campaign saying he would “never” sit with Netanyahu.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) meeting Supreme Court President Esther Hayut and her deputy Hanan Melcer (L) at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on May 28, 2019. (Courtesy)

The Labor leader confirmed a report that a surprise Tuesday meeting between Netanyahu and Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut was part of an attempt by Netanyahu to show Gabbay his offer was serious.

That meeting came a day after Hayut blasted Netanyahu over looming legislative efforts to stifle the state’s judicial system and grant him immunity from prosecution. Netanyahu and his Likud party lawmakers were reportedly planning to pass so-called override legislation, removing from the court its power to strike down Knesset laws and government and parliamentary decisions it deems unconstitutional.

During a Thursday evening interview on Channel 12, Gabbay said that by Sunday when Netanyahu had first reached out to him, it was clear that Liberman had no intention of joining the government.

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)

“Before my eyes I saw an opportunity to stop the erosion of democracy and those laws,” he said, referring to the immunity bill and Supreme Court override bill.

“If I had a moment of doubt that he was using us, I would not have entered the room,” explained Gabbay, who throughout his election campaign said that Netanyahu could not be trusted, issued dozens of ads calling on the leaders of other parties to vow to never sit in his government, and ran a campaign accusing the premier of racism against Mizrahi Jews.

Ahead of the April vote, the Labor chairman frequently differentiated his party from Blue and White by saying his faction was the only one among the two that would never sit in a government with Netanyahu.

Confronted with the past statements, Gabbay said: “I know one thing today: I will not say anything like that anymore because you never know what situation you will find yourself in.”

Throughout Tuesday and Wednesday, Gabbay held consultations with fellow party members where he shared with them what Netanyahu had offered. Save for his hand-picked No. 2 Tal Russo, all of the MKs rejected the idea outright.

Nonetheless, Gabbay continued to entertain the idea until late Wednesday night when Channel 12 broke the first story on the existence of the offer. Minutes later, the Labor Party issued a statement saying that it had decided to reject the proposal.

MK Stav Shaffir said earlier Thursday that Gabbay had “ended his political career,” amid anger in the party over his having considered an offer to join a government under Netanyahu.

“Last night’s events prove it. The Labor Party needs to be rebuilt and clear itself of old backroom dealings in favor of a determined party that believes in its ability to win,” Labor’s No. 4 MK told Channel 12.

Asked about his political future, Gabbay — a former minister for the Kulanu party who quit Netanyahu’s government in 2016 — said his party would hold leadership primaries in another month, by which point he would make a decision.

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