Meretz leaders savage Levy-Abekasis for ‘betrayal’ in opposing Gantz government

‘She should step down,’ demands Nitzan Horowitz after Gesher party chief ‘elected on our backs’ rejects Joint List-backed coalition; Labor chief Peretz remains conspicuously silent

Gesher party leader MK Orly Levy-Abekasis registers her party's slate for the coming elections, February 21, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Gesher party leader MK Orly Levy-Abekasis registers her party's slate for the coming elections, February 21, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Left-wing leaders savaged their former political ally MK Orly Levy-Abekasis on Wednesday after she announced she would not support a minority government led by the centrist Blue and White party that was backed by the Arab-majority Joint List.

Levy-Abekasis, who failed in her bid to enter the Knesset in April with her standalone Gesher party, won a seat in the September and March races through unions with the left-wing Labor and Meretz parties.

On Tuesday, she appeared to deliver a possibly fatal blow to Blue and White leader Benny Gantz’s chances to form a government, announcing in a Facebook post that a Joint List-backed minority government “violates basic norms and values,” that she would not vote for such a government, and that she no longer sees herself beholden to her alliance with Labor and Meretz.

Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz, no. 3 on the Labor-Gesher-Meretz list, was one of many demanding she now resign her Knesset seat obtained from left-wing votes.

“MK Orly Levy has to return the seat. Her words were irresponsible and risible. Throughout the campaign, the members of Labor-Gesher-Meretz, including she herself, were clear in their support for a narrow government led by Gantz and supported by the Joint List. Backing out of that promise is spitting in the face of the voters. She should step down from the position she was given by left-wing voters,” Horowitz said.

Heads of Labor-Gesher-Meretz Nitzan Horowitz (L) Amir Peretz (C) Orly Levy-Abekasis at the entrance to the Central Elections Committee in the Knesset, January 15, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Former Meretz leader Zehava Galon said in a Twitter post that she “never imagined such a betrayal of the voters. To take Meretz votes so that you can then collaborate with Bibi [Netanyahu]’s racist campaign [against the Joint List] is nauseating. Orly Levy must return her seat this very morning.”

Former Meretz chief Tamar Zandberg agreed: “Oh the shame. Orly Levy’s attitude toward the elected representatives of the Arab public is shameful and racist. The fact that she was elected to the Knesset on our backs — with the votes of men and women who are committed to a Gantz government and to Jewish-Arab cooperation — demands that she vacate her post and resign. She has no mandate to prevent a left-wing government.”

Unconfirmed rumors on Tuesday claimed Levy-Abecassis’ brother Jacky, the Likud mayor of the northern town of Bet Shean, was seen visiting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s official residence in Jerusalem on Tuesday morning, apparently bearing a message from the Gesher leader just hours before Levy-Abekasis announced her de facto splinter from her left-wing allies.

Labor party leaders, especially party chief MK Amir Peretz who engineered the alliance with Levy-Abekasis, were conspicuously silent on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, some on the right defended her volte-face.

Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg in Jerusalem, August 22, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Simcha Rothman, a prominent right-wing activist, rejected claims she had defrauded her voters.

Responding to left-wing accusations Levy-Abekasis had agreed to a Joint List-backed government during the campaign, Rothman wrote on social media that “she said she had no problem that they [the Joint List] support [a minority government] from outside it on social issues. Establishing a government dependent on Balad for its very founding and every subsequent vote isn’t ‘support from outside by the Joint List on social issues.’ It’s the end of Zionism.”

Even some Gesher activists roundly condemned their party leader. Writing on Facebook, Or Sujunov echoed left-wing calls for Levy-Abekasis to resign.

“100% of voters for the Labor/Meretz/Gesher union want a government with/supported by the Joint List,” Sujunov wrote on Wednesday.

“Orly Levy failed to enter the Knesset with her own party. The right-wing vote left her outside. Only the left-wing vote got her in. Orly Levy didn’t bring even a quarter of a seat to her list in the last election…. If Orly Levy can’t live with her list’s decision [to cooperate with the Joint List] — she must resign.”

Gesher party chair Orly Levy-Abekasis (L) and Labor head Amir Peretz announcing their joint run in the September election, in Tel Aviv, July 18, 2019. (Roy Alima/Flash90)

Levy-Abekasis’s statement came as it became apparent that Gantz was rapidly firming up plans to present for approval by the Knesset a government made up of Blue and White (33 seats), the hawkish Yisrael Beytenu (7 seats) and dovish Labor-Gesher-Meretz (7 seats), with most or all of the Arab lawmakers of the Joint List (15 seats) giving their backing from outside the coalition.

Neither Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud nor Blue and White mustered a majority of Knesset seats in the March 2 election, and neither has a clear path to a majority coalition. The prime minister has the backing of 58 MKs and Likud is the largest party in the 120-seat Knesset.

If Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu and the entire Joint List, which won 15 seats, were to recommend to President Reuven Rivlin that Gantz form the new coalition, he would have 62 backers and could get the nod.

Blue and White’s leadership met with Liberman on Tuesday for what the sides called a “positive and substantive” sit-down. The top four MKs — Gantz, Yair Lapid, Moshe Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi — took a photo with Liberman at the end of the meeting that they disseminated on social media.

But with Levy-Abekasis’s rejection, along with the opposition of two right-wing lawmakers in Blue and White, Zvi Hauser and Yoav Hendel, who have also rejected a coalition based on Joint List support, Gantz would not have the 61 lawmakers necessary to confirm a government, even if all 15 of the Arab lawmakers were to back it.

Knesset members Yoaz Hendel (L) and Zvi Hauser (R) seen at the Knesset , ahead of the opening session of the new government, on April 29, 2019 (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

This could doom Israel to a fourth election in just over a year, or give Netanyahu a majority if the three defected to the right-wing bloc, something they have all publicly vowed not to do.

Levy-Abekasis’s statement came hours after the Haaretz daily reported that Gantz plans to swiftly put together a minority government by March 23, so as not to allow Netanyahu time to try and sow discord and break the fragile apparent truce between Liberman and the Arab lawmakers. The report said Gantz also planned to go ahead with the move despite opposition from Hauser and Hendel, believing that they will fall in line once a deal is done.

Blue and White MK Yair Lapid at the party’s post-election event in Tel Aviv on March 3, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Apart from the opposition from the three MKs, it remains unclear whether the Joint List and Blue and White could reach an agreement. One of the demands previously raised by the Arab alliance has been Gantz’s rejection of US President Donald Trump administration’s peace plan, which the former army chief of staff has endorsed.

Likud has attempted to portray the Joint List as out of bounds of Israeli politics, terming its members “terror supporters” and citing their opposition to Zionism and some extreme anti-Israel stances by members of Balad, one of the party’s constituent factions.

Head of the Joint List party Ayman Odeh speaks to the media outside his home in Haifa, March 3, 2020 (Meir Vaknin/Flash90)

Israel’s Arab lawmakers have long refused to join a government on ideological grounds rooted in their support for the Palestinians. Jewish lawmakers have, mutually, seen the Arab parties as beyond the pale as political partners. Under its current leader MK Ayman Odeh, however, segments of the Joint List have seemingly softened their opposition to such a partnership. After the previous national vote in September, most of the list backed Gantz for the premiership, breaking with its longstanding refusal to endorse candidates for prime ministers.

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