Labor was offered finance, welfare, deputy defense and more

To assuage double-cross fears, Netanyahu let Gabbay film him rejecting Liberman

TV report details desperate lengths to which PM went, in secret talks through Tuesday night, to create a package sweet enough to entice leftist Labor into his right-wing coalition

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu turns to speak to Labor party leader Avi Gabbay in the course of the Knesset vote to disperse and hold new elections, late on May 29, 2019 (Ynet screenshot)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu turns to speak to Labor party leader Avi Gabbay in the course of the Knesset vote to disperse and hold new elections, late on May 29, 2019 (Ynet screenshot)

As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu negotiated through the night on a coalition deal with Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay in a desperate, last-ditch bid to form a government and avoid new elections, he let Gabbay, who was fearful of being double-crossed, film him promising to never partner with Avigdor Liberman, Channel 12 reported Friday.

The two met secretly for hours at the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem overnight Tuesday-Wednesday in an ultimately fruitless attempt by Netanyahu to bring Labor, or at least some of its six MKs, into his prospective coalition and thus give him a majority amid what proved to be the terminal breakdown in his negotiations with Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party.

The meeting happened despite Netanyahu’s relentless demonization of Labor and other left-of-center politicians over the years, despite Gabbay’s repeated vow to never sit in a government with Netanyahu, and despite the fact that most of his party was unaware of the talks.

In a bid to overcome what they knew would be near-unshakeable opposition in Labor to sitting with Netanyahu and the other far-right and ultra-Orthodox parties in the prospective coalition, Netanyahu and Gabbay tried to craft tailor-made portfolios that top Labor MK’s would find hard to resist, the Channel 12 report said.

President Reuven Rivlin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other party leaders pose for a group picture during the swearing-in ceremony of Knesset members, on April 30, 2019. Photo by Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90

For Shelly Yachimovich, a previous Labor leader, former journalist and social justice campaigner, they stitched together a ministry that would combine the Communications Ministry, the culture portfolio and responsibility for secular pre-university programs and youth movements.

Avi Gabbay, leader of the Labor Party (C), with Labor party parliament members (R-L) Amir Peretz, Stav Shaffir, Itzik Shmuli and Shelly Yachimovich at a party meeting in Tel Aviv on February 13, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Another top Labor MK, Itzik Shmuli, who was a leader of the 2011 social protest movement, was to be offered the Social Welfare Ministry, while former general Tal Russo, who reportedly accompanied Gabbay to the talks, would be deputy defense minister under Netanyahu.

Gabbay was to be given the treasury — even though Netanyahu had already promised that same job to Kulanu leader and current Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon.

Less-detailed reports late on Wednesday about the Netanyahu-Gabbay negotiations said that Netanyahu also offered to support veteran Labor member Amir Peretz as Israel’s next president when Reuven Rivlin’s term ends.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sits in the Knesset, with Labor party leader Avi Gabbay just behind him, in the course of the Knesset vote to disperse and hold new elections, late on May 29, 2019 (Ynet screenshot)

However, as the negotiations wore on into the pre-dawn hours Wednesday, Gabbay remained concerned that Netanyahu would use Labor to secure a majority government and get it sworn into office ahead of the Wednesday midnight deadline, but would then abandon Labor for Liberman several months down the line, the report said.

To allay those fears, Netanyahu suggested that they call a press conference for 7 p.m. on Wednesday where he would announce that he had closed the door for good on a partnership with Liberman. But the Labor leader was concerned that Netanyahu would utilize the fact that he had a deal with Gabbay in order to pressure Liberman to join the coalition instead of Labor in the hours that remained before the press conference.

“So film me,” the TV report quoted Netanyahu as saying. It described what then ensued: With their various negotiating intermediaries watching, Gabbay stood on the porch of the Prime Minister’s Residence on Balfour Street in Jerusalem as the sun came up, and hit record on his cell phone to capture Netanyahu saying, “Today is Wednesday, 6:30 a.m in the morning,” and promising to never again partner with Liberman.

Labor party chairman Avi Gabbay (right) with party member Tal Russo as the results of the Knesset elections are announced at the party headquarters in Tel Aviv, on April 9, 2019. (Flash90)

The Netanyahu-Gabbay deal ultimately failed, however, after news of the talks surfaced and Labor MKs Yachimovich, Peretz, Shmuli and Stav Shaffir swiftly rejected sitting with Netanyahu and furiously condemned Gabbay, who led Labor to its historic low of six seats in April’s elections, for having considered any such alliance with the reviled prime minister. Netanyahu also failed to persuade Liberman to join the coalition, and instead had to resort to initiating snap elections, now slated for September 17.

During the parliamentary proceeding itself, as the Knesset voted to disperse at midnight on Wednesday night, a furious looking Netanyahu turned around in his chair and spoke to Gabbay, whose Knesset seat was directly behind him.

Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman holds a press conference in Tel Aviv on May 30, 2019. (Flash90)

The TV report also said that following Liberman’s refusal to join the coalition, some Likud lawmakers proposed passing a law to raise the Knesset threshold from 3.25%, just before the vote to dissolve parliament, in order to prevent Liberman getting back into the Knesset.

However, Knesset legal advisers ruled it out, and so did Netanyahu — who noted that a raised threshold might prevent other right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties making it into the Knesset. Polls on Thursday suggested that Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu is rising, and is heading for 8 or 9 seats in September, so a raised threshold could have hurt others but not him.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to the media at the Knesset, in Jerusalem on May 29, 2019 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

On Thursday, Gabbay sought to justify his talks with Netanyahu, saying that even though he had repeatedly vowed to not join a Netanyahu government, he seriously considered it after he was offered the means to help preserve Israeli democracy.

Gabbay said that Netanyahu had agreed to his demands that there be a change in the government’s rhetoric toward the country’s judiciary, which opponents of the premier say he has allowed to come under attack as he weighed legislation to grant himself immunity from prosecution.

The Labor head said that the prime minister had also offered him “veto power” on any of the government’s measures regarding reforms of the court system, which Gabbay said deserved to be at least considered.

Gabbay also said he had learned from the episode not to issue blanket statements after he spent the election campaign saying he would “never” sit with Netanyahu.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) meeting Supreme Court President Esther Hayut and her deputy Hanan Melcer (L) at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on May 28, 2019. (Courtesy)

The Labor leader confirmed a report that a surprise Tuesday meeting between Netanyahu and Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut was part of an attempt by Netanyahu to show Gabbay his offer was serious.

That meeting came a day after Hayut blasted Netanyahu over looming legislative efforts to stifle the state’s judicial system and grant him immunity from prosecution.

Netanyahu and his Likud party lawmakers, if returned to power, were planning to pass so-called “override” legislation, removing from the court its power to strike down Knesset laws, and government and parliamentary decisions, it deems unconstitutional.

Gabbay on Thursday evening acknowledged that he had weighed, and ultimately rejected, a Likud offer to join the coalition.

During an interview on Channel 12, Gabbay said that on Sunday, when Netanyahu first reached out to him, it was clear that Liberman had no intention on joining the government.

Labor Party chairman Avi Gabbay (podium) flanked by Tal Russo (right) and former Labor leader Amir Peretz (left) addresses supporters and media as the results in the general elections are announced in Tel Aviv, on April 9, 2019 (FLASH90)

“Before my eyes I saw an opportunity to stop the erosion of democracy and those laws,” he said, referring to a mooted amended immunity bill and the Supreme Court override bill.

“If I had a moment of doubt that he was using us, I would not have entered the room,” explained Gabbay, who throughout the campaign said that Netanyahu could not be trusted and issued dozens of ads calling on the leaders of other parties to vow to never sit with Netanyahu.

The Labor chairman frequently differentiated his party from the main opposition Blue and White, by saying his faction was the only one of the the two that would never sit in a government with Netanyahu.

Confronted with the past statements, Gabbay said that his “worldview” up to the experiences of the past several days had been to definitively reject the notion of ever serving in a government with Netanyahu. “I know one thing today: I will not say anything like that anymore because you never know what situation you will find yourself in,” he said.

Throughout Tuesday and Wednesday, Gabbay held consultations with fellow party members where he shared with them what Netanyahu had offered. Save for his hand-picked No. 2 Tal Russo, all of the MKs rejected the idea outright.

Nonetheless, Gabbay continued to entertain the idea until late Wednesday night when Channel 12 broke the first story on the existence of the offer. Minutes later, the Labor Party issued a statement that it had decided to reject the proposal.

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