Labor Party leader Amir Peretz on Thursday announced a merger with Orly Levy-Abekasis’s Gesher party, which failed to enter the Knesset in the April elections, seemingly marking a rightward shift for his party and possibly ruling out joining forces with the left-wing Meretz party.
Presenting the move as a boost to Labor’s socially minded policies, Peretz in a joint press conference in Tel Aviv described Levy-Abekasis as “a pioneering woman, with a broad worldview of social justice … of the state’s responsibility to the fate of the elderly, the handicapped, young couples” and others.
Levy-Abekasis, a former Knesset member with the right-wing Yisrael Beytenu, split off to form her own party, Gesher, earlier this year, but failed to make it into the Knesset in April.
Though she largely focuses on social issues, the daughter of former Likud foreign minister David Levy has remained largely identified with the right, and the merger was largely seen as a move by Labor to push for more support from the political center rather than from Meretz, which is further to the left.
“We found the way to unite and build a political home that has room for all Israelis. A home for sidelined populations that feel the state has forgotten about them,” he said on stage alongside Levy-Abekasis. “These groups will give us the opportunity to give them the right and just answers. Today we are going full force to win the public’s heart, with messages of unity, love and joint responsibility. We won’t be dragged to the inflammatory discourse, we won’t take part in the contest of who invents a more offensive remark.”
Gesher is expected to receive three seats in the joint slate’s first 10 spots, Channel 12 reported. It is not clear where exactly party members will be placed.
At the press conference, Levy-Abekasis said she had received merger offers from right and left but “when the offer came from Amir it felt natural to me to bring down the walls and look at what unites and connects us… it’s time we let go of the terms ‘right’ and ‘left’ and come together for the good of the country.”
She added that some offers had been “more enticing and safer, but I preferred to go with someone I could trust. He’s proven himself in the past.”
Labor had been widely reported to be nearing a merger with Meretz, with both parties struggling to remain relevant ahead of elections. However, multiple Hebrew-language reports Thursday said that Peretz had informed Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz that the parties will not merge ahead of the September 17 vote, following weeks of negotiations.
Meretz lamented the decision and accused Peretz in a statement of “repeating the mistake of [former Labor chairman] Avi Gabbay and destroying the possibility of mergers in the left-wing bloc.”
The centrist Blue and White party welcomed the Labor-Gesher merger, saying it would “prevent thousands of votes from being lost.”
It added that after the elections it would seek to invite both Labor and the ruling Likud party — without Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — to a unity government.
A Blue and White-Gesher merger was ruled out after Levy-Abekasis demanded to be No. 5 on the joint slate and to receive two other slots, down the list, demands that the party couldn’t meet, Channel 12 reported Tuesday.
Likud merely said in a statement that it “continues not to intervene in how the left divides its votes.”
Levy-Abekasis, who began the previous election cycle as a rising star, lost momentum fast and her party ended up failing to clear the minimum electoral threshold.
She founded the socio-economic minded party after breaking off from Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu in 2016 and flying solo as an independent in the Knesset opposition for three years.
During her nearly ten years in the Knesset, she served as deputy speaker and advocated on behalf of at-risk youth, gender-equality and sexual assault victims.
Meanwhile, former foreign minister and Hatnua party chief Tzipi Livni has rejected offers from Peretz and from ex-prime minister Ehud Barak’s newly formed Israel Democratic Party to join them in the upcoming election, the Ynet news site reported Thursday.
That likely means that Livni will not be rejoining politics after quitting earlier this year, despite recent reports to the contrary.
One more potential Labor merger is with Barak’s party, though the Ynet news site reported Thursday that Peretz had told associates in private conversations that his party will not run alongside Barak in the upcoming election.
Peretz and Barak had met last week to discuss the idea of a merger. Peretz signaled he would be willing to let Barak lead the joint slate in order to bring about the united bloc. Barak had also said he would be willing to give up the top slot on a joint list.
But a Channel 12 report Friday cited senior officials in both Labor and Meretz as saying Barak’s ties to Jeffrey Epstein, who is a suspect in a US sex trafficking scandal, had significantly lowered their parties’ chances of joining forces with him.
Epstein has been indicted for creating what prosecutors described as a network of underage girls whom he molested and exploited in the early 2000s.
Barak said Wednesday he had cut all ties with Epstein, days after saying he had asked his lawyers to explore options to dissolve their limited partnership.