Leaving politics, Livni warns this election may be last gasp of democracy

After failing to secure center-left bloc, Hatnua leader says she doesn’t want votes wasted, charges PM trying to take over justice system while he attacks media, law enforcement

Raoul Wootliff is a former Times of Israel political correspondent and Daily Briefing podcast producer.

Hatnua party chief Tzipi Livni holds a press conference in Tel Aviv on February 18, 2019, announcing her departure from politics. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Hatnua party chief Tzipi Livni holds a press conference in Tel Aviv on February 18, 2019, announcing her departure from politics. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Veteran lawmaker Tzipi Livni, who has been a fixture in the Knesset for nearly 20 years, announced on Monday that she would be quitting politics at the end of the current Knesset session and pulling her Hatnua party out of the election race due to its poor polling results.

“I am announcing that Hatnua will not run in the upcoming elections,” she said at a press conference in Tel Aviv. “We do not have enough political power to realize our principles. I will not forgive myself if votes are wasted, and today I halt the battle knowing that I did everything for my beloved country.”

The announcement came three days before the Thursday deadline for parties to declare their election slates.

Two polls published on Sunday by Channel 12 television and the Kan public broadcaster both gave Hatnua less than 1% of the vote. With the electoral threshold currently at 3.25 percent, parties need to receive approximately 150,000 votes in order to enter the Knesset; any number less than that is “wasted” in the sense that it went to a party that will not be entering Knesset.

Hatnua party chief Tzipi Livni holds a press conference in Tel Aviv on February 18, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

“Twenty years ago, I was elected to the Knesset of Israel, the state of the Jewish people, a democracy that has equality for all, to preserve a Jewish majority in Israel and to establish the recognition of Israel as the Jewish people’s democracy,” Livni said, holding back tears and with her voice breaking multiple times during the speech, which was highly critical of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Hatnua party chief Tzipi Livni holds a press conference in Tel Aviv on February 18, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

“The last years have been tough, peace has become a dirty word, democracy is under attack, and having a different political position [than the government] has become a curse. Annexation has received more and more support, and now the one in charge is trying to take over the justice system while he attacks the media and law enforcement,” she charged.

“If he won’t stop, these elections will be the last act of democracy in Israel. We must defend the freedom of expression of those who do not agree with their views.

“Today I ask forgiveness from every man and woman who has supported me and urged me to continue. I am still strong, but this is the right decision. Continue to believe in the path we have forged, you can change politics,” she concluded.

The decision came after Livni failed to negotiate a deal to unite with another centrist or left-wing party.

“I don’t intend to throw away center-left votes,” Livni told confidants in private conversations, the Yedioth Ahronoth reported earlier Monday.

In the previous Knesset, Hatnua had been partnered with the Labor party to form the Zionist Union. On January 1 she was ousted from the opposition alliance on live television by Labor leader Avi Gabbay and since then Hatnua has slipped in the polls. By hitching Hatnua with another, larger centrist party, polls have shown that Livni could add two seats or more to the other party’s tally.

Zionist Union chairman Avi Gabbay (L) announces the shock breakup 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)

Livni’s departure from the political arena was met with statements from many left-wing lawmakers who unanimously said it was a loss and that she would be missed.

“Livni made a courageous step and Israeli politics is losing a worthy and significant person,” said opposition chief Shelly Yachimovich of the Labor party. “I saw her as a partner in striving for peace and safeguarding democracy. I’m sure Livni will continue serving the country also outside the Knesset and wish her luck.”

Meretz party leader Tamar Zandberg called Livni “a bright spot in a dark and racist Knesset,” saying she was particularly impressed with “her path from the deep right-wing to one of the most prominent pro-peace, pro-democracy and anti-incitement voices even while others remained silent.”

“She will no doubt be missed in the next Knesset,” she said, but added she was confident Livni wasn’t gone for good.

Livni began her political career as a member of Knesset for the Likud party in 1999. In 2005 she joined the Kadima party set up by former prime minister Ariel Sharon ahead of the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, and was elected chair of the party in 2008. In the following elections Kadima received the most votes and was the biggest party, but Livni couldn’t form a coalition and Netanyahu became prime minister.

In 2012 she set up her own Hatnua party after resigning from the Knesset earlier that year following her defeat in Kadima party leadership primaries. In the 2013 elections Hatnua won six seats, and she was made justice minister in a coalition with Netanyahu as well as being appointed in charge of negotiations with the Palestinians. For the 2014 elections she united Hatnua with the Labor party to form the Zionist Union. She was opposition leader from July 2017 until the beginning of 2019 when the Zionist Union was dissolved.

Michael Bachner and Stuart Winer contributed to this report.

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