In the latest development to shake up Israel’s political scene in the early stages of the campaign ahead of April’s election, Zionist Union chairman Avi Gabbay dropped the bombshell Tuesday that he was dissolving his partnership with Hatnua chair Tzipi Livni and the two will not be running together.
He made the announcement as Livni sat at his side, humiliating her as TV cameras rolled, without giving her advance notice.
To the shock of his party’s lawmakers, and of Livni herself, at a faction meeting in the Knesset, Gabbay said that he had “hoped and believed that the new partnership would lead to our joint growth, to a real connection, and to mutual support. But the smart public has seen that this is not the case, and has drawn away.”
The move comes after Livni, a former foreign minister who came close to winning the prime ministership a decade ago, called last week for the country’s centrist and leftist parties to “set our egos aside” and unite in a bid to unseat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In an apparent dig at Gabbay, who has reportedly refused to consider a union with another party in which he is not number one, she said she would be the first to give up pride of place on a new unity slate.
She has since been rumored to be seeking to join forces with the new political party Israel Resilience, founded by former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz, who in turn is said to be wary of partnering with her because she is regarded as too left-wing.
Gabbay stressed on Tuesday that he too wanted to form a united front against Netanyahu, but said he could not continue to work with Livni and questioned her “loyalty” to his leadership.
“I still believe in cooperation, in joining forces and uniting a large camp committed to change, but successful pacts require friendship, agreement, and loyalty to the chosen path,” Gabbay said, with a stunned-looking Livni sitting beside him.
“It does not exist in this partnership,” he charged, refusing to make eye contact with the Hatnua chief.
Meeting with his Zionist Union MKs after the shock announcement, Gabbay continued to trash Livni, according to party sources. “I only got shit from her. I let her lead the opposition, and she had nothing positive to say about me,” Gabbay said, according to the sources quoted by Hebrew media.
He also told them that “the Zionist Union is done,” and the party would now revert to being called Labor.
The Knesset House Committee later in the day approved the two parties’ request to split their factions, officially dissolving the union.
Livni, who was set to speak after Gabbay but did not know about his planned announcement, looked stunned by his statement. She got up, walked the few steps to the microphone, and said that she would not respond immediately while she made her “decisions” about what to do next.
Responding to the announcement later on Twitter, Livni said she was pleased that “the doubts have been dispelled and we — all of those who truly believe in effecting real change in the coming elections — can focus on the important national challenge that we are facing.” That challenge, she said, was to achieve a political reversal, ousting Netanyahu.
In June, Gabbay announced that Livni would be appointed the Knesset opposition leader and preserve her Hatnua party’s alliance with Labor in the Zionist Union faction in the coming elections, which at the time were formally scheduled for November 2019.
In most cases, the leader of the largest Knesset opposition party is the opposition leader, but Gabbay, who defeated Isaac Herzog in a primary to take the helm of Labor in 2017, wasn’t able to take on the position since he was not a member of the Knesset. He was reportedly initially reluctant to give Livni the job for fear she would use the position to try and upstage him.
In 2015, Livni’s Hatnua party merged with Labor, which at the time was led by Herzog, to form the Zionist Union slate ahead of that year’s parliamentary elections. She had initially agreed to a two-year rotation of the premiership if the Zionist Union was tasked with forming the coalition, but backed out of the rotation hours before the election. Until the deal with Gabbay was announced in June, it was unclear whether Livni would uphold her partnership with the Labor party through elections.
Tuesday’s announcement puts an end to that agreement and will likely mean that Livni and five other Hatnua MKs will run on a separate ticket from the Labor party.
Livni, once a Likud stalwart, joined the centrist Kadima party when it was established by Ariel Sharon in 2005, then rose to lead the party ahead of the 2009 elections. Ousted as leader in 2012, she broke away and formed Hatnua, which espoused more dovish positions from the start.
Gabbay’s dramatic gambit Tuesday, and Livni’s attempts to form a center-left bloc, come as the Zionist Union faces turmoil over several polls showing Likud, which has 30 seats in the outgoing Knesset, far ahead of any would-be challengers, and Yesh Atid consistently beating Zionist Union in any electoral scenario. Some polls have put Zionist Union, which won 24 seats in the 2015 elections, as low as 8 seats.
Indeed, the only meaningful threat to a Likud election victory would come from Gantz’s Israel Resilience teaming up with Yesh Atid party. Together, a Channel 10 poll showed last week, they would win 26 seats, just one shy of Likud’s 27.
Partly in response to those polls, several Zionist Union lawmakers have been exploring a plan to leave its ranks, a party official said last week.
Directly addressing his MKs, some of whom responded with audible shock at the announcement over Livni’s enforced departure, Gabbay promised Tuesday to “preserve the unity of the party” in order to mount a credible challenge to Netanyahu.
Responding to Livni’s ouster, Netanyahu said, “I don’t interfere in how the left divides its votes. What’s important to me is that the right will also establish the next government, and continue to lead the State of Israel. For this, we need to vote only Likud.”