Seeking to bolster the once-dominant Labor party’s security credentials in an attempt to regain lost support, Avi Gabbay named retired general Tal Russo Wednesday as number two on the party’s electoral slate for the April election, promising that Labor will “place security above all else.”
Announcing that Russo would fill the slot reserved for a candidate of his choosing, Gabbay said he was sure the former head of the army’s Southern Command would “be a full partner in the battle for change in the country.”
Before he retired from active duty in 2013, Russo oversaw 2012’s Operation Pillar of Defense, an eight-day aerial offensive against Palestinian terror groups in the Gaza Strip that began with the targeted killing of Hamas military chief Ahmad Jabari.
“I am happy and proud to present here today a significant reinforcement to our excellent team,” Gabbay said during a press conference in Tel Aviv. “From the start, we told ourselves that the additional candidate would be a member of the security forces, who knows what is going on at the various fronts. A man who knows well the important arenas for our security — Iran, Syria, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.”
High-level military figures are often considered an asset in Israeli politics. Labor’s pickup of Russo gives it a security figure with comparable gravitas to former chief of staff Benny Gantz, whose Israel Resilience party has siphoned votes from Gabbay’s faction, and former general Yoav Gallant, who recently defected from Kulanu to Likud.
But despite the claim that he had always sought a high-profile military figure, the choice of Russo came just a day after the mayor of the southern city of Beersheba and Yesh Atid lawmaker Haim Jelin turned down offers from Gabbay of guaranteed places on the party’s slate.
Standing alongside Gabbay, Russo said that after a 35-year career in the IDF, “today I am putting on a new uniform in the service of the State of Israel.”
The former general said he had decided to join Labor because it represented “the values that established this country.”
“I call from here for all of us to go home. Return to the path of these values… The values of the Labor Party – security first, and a hand that is always extended to peace,” Russo said. “The State of Israel needs the Labor Party.”
Gabbay said that Russo’s addition to the party was “a great contribution to the peace camp and a clear statement — it is possible to create a secure peace.”
The Labor leader contrasted his party’s position with that of the ruling Likud, which he said was pushing for “the annexation of millions of Palestinians to the State of Israel. An annexation that would endanger the character of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. An annexation that would endanger our economy and harm the quality of life and public services.”
He also took the opportunity to slam Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over his successful efforts to encourage a merger between the national religious Jewish Home and National Union parties and the extremist far-right Otzma Yehudit.
“That same Likud now backs the Kahanists, the racists and the inciters. That same Likud has finally declared a bankruptcy of values,” Gabbay charged.
“As opposed to Likud, we say loudly and clearly — security above all else. Whoever causes harm will be repaid double. But we also have an outstretched hand for a political solution. Our vision and our interest is separation from the Palestinians. And the way there is through a regional arrangement with the moderate Arab states and within the framework of a two-state solution,” the Labor leader said.
Since holding its primary last week, Labor has seen a bump in the polls but is still projected to fall well short of the 19 seats it currently holds in the 120-member Knesset.
Gabbay, a former minister for the Kulanu party, has faced considerable criticism from a number of Labor lawmakers in recent months over his stewardship of the party amid its sagging electoral strength.
Alexander Fulbright contributed to this report.