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Renegade MK files breakaway request from Labor-Meretz after U-turn on Joint List

Orly Levy-Abekasis asks to be deemed a separate faction, days after walking back support for minority government backed by the left-wing slate she ran with

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

MK Orly Levy-Abekasis at a Knesset House Committee meeting, March 15, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
MK Orly Levy-Abekasis at a Knesset House Committee meeting, March 15, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Gesher party chairwoman Orly Levy-Abekasis filed a request to the Knesset on Tuesday to be identified as an individual, one-lawmaker faction in parliament, effectively ending her partnership with the left-leaning Labor and Meretz with whom she had merged ahead of last month’s election.

The move comes a week after she split with fellow faction members in a dramatic about face, declaring that she would not support a minority government led by Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz backed from outside by the mainly Arab Joint List.

She wrote in a Facebook post then that she was not beholden to her agreement with the Meretz party, which had been “forced” on her and Labor chairman Amir Peretz. Twelve days before the election she had written that she had “no problem whatsoever” with joining a government supported from the outside by the Joint List, including its ultra-nationalist Balad faction.

Peretz, according to Labor officials, was “shocked” and “very hurt” by Levy-Abekasis’s announcement she would not back Gantz, which they said he had not seen coming. The two spoke on the phone shortly thereafter, but have yet to be able to mend ties, according to Channel 12.

Labor merged with the moderate-right Gesher ahead of September’s election, in what the parties said at the time was an effort to attract more socioeconomic-minded voters who don’t necessarily come from left-wing part of the electorate that has traditionally supported the Labor party. They managed to win just six seats in September — the same number that Labor received in the previous April election. Fearing an inability to cross the electoral threshold ahead of last month’s race, Labor-Gesher and the hard-left Meretz parties decided to merge in a deal that Levy-Abekasis initially opposed. The three-faction party went on to receive just six seats in that election, with the Gesher chairwoman blaming the merger for the result, claiming that it scared away voters.

The heads of the Gesher and Labor parties Orly Levy- Abekasis and Amir Peretz at the party headquarters on elections night, in Tel Aviv on March 2, 2020. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

After declaring her opposition to a minority government, Levy-Abekasis requested the right to make an individual recommendation, separate from Labor-Meretz, to President Reuven Rivlin for whom she wanted to be tapped with forming the government. She ultimately decided to recommend no one, telling Rivlin on Sunday that she supported the formation of a unity government.

She explained the decision days earlier, saying the country needed a national unity government amid the threat posed by the coronavirus pandemic. Levy-Abekasis, who had been Labor-Gesher-Meretz’s self-described candidate for health minister, had made headlines before the election when she claimed that the virus had been created in a Chinese laboratory.

Her splintering off has led to renewed speculation that she would join Likud, which is three MKs away from forming a right-wing, religious coalition of 61 lawmakers; but Levy-Abekasis said last week that she had not been in touch with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or any other MKs from the right-wing bloc before moving forward with the breakaway.

This will not be the first time Levy-Abekasis serves as a one-woman faction in the Knesset. In 2016, she split off from the secular, right-wing Yisrael Beytenu faction after it entered Netanyahu’s coalition, claiming the party had neglected social issues in exchange for a seat in the government. However, it was widely reported at the time that Levy-Abekasis had been offended over Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman’s inability to assure her a ministerial post.

Responding to her Tuesday request to split off from Labor and Meretz, Labor MK Itzik Shmuli tweeted, “[she is] twisting a sharp knife [in the back].”

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