Labor leader to move up party primaries, set to bow out, after stunning loss

Avi Gabbay not expected to seek reelection after center-left party fell to worst-ever six seats in last week’s election

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)

Embattled Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay will move up the party primaries and likely won’t seek reelection after the dovish movement saw its worst-ever election result last week.

According to Channel 12, the party will choose a new leader within six months. MKs Itzhik Shmuli and Stav Shaffir, two rising stars within the party, are expected to pursue the post.

Gabbay has come under increasing pressure to step down after the party only managed to scrape together enough votes for six seats in last week’s election, the worst-ever showing for the party or its Mapai predecessor, which led Israel for its first 30 years. In the 2015 elections, Labor, as part of the Zionist Union party, won 24 seats.

Days after Tuesday’s election, Gabbay said he will “confer” with party members about “moving up the date of leadership primaries.”

Avi Gabbay, leader of the Labor Party (C), with Labor Party Knesset 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)

Gabbay, who served as a minister for Kulanu in 2015-2016 and then quit the party to join Labor, has never been a member of the Knesset, and was elected to the legislature for the first time in Tuesday’s vote.

Last week, he made clear that he did not intend to quit the party altogether but to serve as an MK.

“I will continue to work for the Labor movement and the Israeli public and on April 30th will be sworn in as a member of the Israeli Knesset and serve the public from the opposition,” he said.

Shmuli and Shaffir first entered politics in 2013 after gaining a national platform by leading national protests over the cost of living. Shmuli was the top vote-getter when the party held a general primary to set its Knesset list in February, followed by Shaffir.

MK Stav Shaffir seen outside the Labor Party polling station in Tel Aviv on February 11, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Hebrew media speculated that Gabbay could step down and appoint an interim leader. The Ynet news site claimed former party chairman Amir Peretz was being considered to lead the party until primaries can be held.

Also last week, the secretary-general of the Labor Party, Eran Hermoni, publicly called for Gabbay to resign, saying a new leader was needed in order to “begin the work of rebuilding” the once venerable left-wing party.

Labor has a dizzying history of replacing its chairman after election losses. Since it last won the election in 1992, it has seen a whopping total of 13 different leaders.

Last Wednesday, MK Eitan Cabel, who placed low in the Labor primary after criticizing Gabbay and won’t be in the next Knesset, said: “Gabbay must hand over the keys immediately and [we must] choose a temporary party chairman, because the situation as it is cannot continue.”

In the 2015 elections, Labor, running together with Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua in an alliance called the Zionist Union, was the second-largest party.

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)

But months ahead of Tuesday’s elections, Gabbay announced on live TV the termination of Labor’s ties with Hatnua, as Livni sat by his side without having been given advance notice.

The move was widely slammed and was seen as a major cause for an erosion in support for Gabbay.

But the party also saw much of its base flee to Blue and White as its voters looked for a way to oust Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The results point to a decline for the party that was instrumental in establishing the State of Israel.

The Labor Party was formed in 1968 by a merger of three parties, one of which was David Ben-Gurion’s Mapai party, which was founded in 1930. In the years leading to the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, Mapai was the de facto leadership of the Jewish community and played a key role in the creation of the state.

In this May 14, 1948 photo, cabinet ministers of the new State of Israel are seen at a ceremony at the Tel Aviv Art Museum marking the creation of the new state, during prime minister David Ben-Gurion’s speech declaring independence. (AP Photo)

Labor remained Israel’s unchallenged ruling party until 1977, when Likud wrested the premiership away. Since then, it held power for a total of eight years, two of them as part of a unity government with Likud. That period included the 1990s Oslo Accords, negotiated by then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and his foreign minister, Shimon Peres.

Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish extremist in 1995, and the Oslo Accords remain highly controversial among Israelis.

Ehud Barak’s victory in the 1999 elections and his two-year premiership were the last time an Israeli coalition was led by Labor, which has been in decline since.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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