5 Zionist Union lawmakers said to be considering split amid leadership tensions

Some MKs reportedly mull joining Meretz, as Labor chief Gabbay and Hatnua leader Livni seem to spar over best way to defeat Netanyahu in upcoming elections

Raoul Wootliff is a former Times of Israel political correspondent and Daily Briefing podcast producer.

Labor chair Avi Gabbay, right, and Hatnua chair MK Tzipi Livni attend a Zionist Union faction meeting at the Knesset on July 24, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Labor chair Avi Gabbay, right, and Hatnua chair MK Tzipi Livni attend a Zionist Union faction meeting at the Knesset on July 24, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

A group of lawmakers is planning to leave the Zionist Union, an official in the opposition party told The Times of Israel on Wednesday, as the leaders of the two factions that make up the center-left alliance appeared to be at loggerheads over how best to defeat Likud incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the upcoming April 9 elections.

The party official named the Zionist Union MKs meeting in the Knesset to contemplate a possible breakaway as Eitan Cabel, Mickey Rosenthal, Nachman Shai, Yossi Yona and Ayelet Nahmias-Verbin.

All five declined to comment on the discussions.

It wasn’t clear if the lawmakers can manage to recruit the eight MKs needed to split the 24-seat party.

MK Ayelet Nachmias Verbin attends a committee meeting at the Knesset on July 26, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A third of a party’s lawmakers must make such a move together if they wish to leave without forfeiting their seats in the parliament.

Some of the lawmakers were considering joining the left-wing Meretz party after they leave, Hadashot reported earlier. The Kan public broadcaster said the MKs were planning to split off from the new party after the initial breakaway and join separate political parties.

Opposition leader Tzipi Livni speaks during a Zionist Union faction meeting in the Knesset in Jerusalem on December 17, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

On Tuesday night Hatnua chief MK Tzipi Livni, the leader of the opposition, called for the country’s centrist and leftist parties to “put our egos aside” and unite in a bid to unseat Netanyahu.

She would be the first to give up pride of place on a new unity slate, she told a crowd at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya.

The comments sparked an angry retort from aides to Labor leader Avi Gabbay, who interpreted her call as urging the center-left camp to unite behind Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid.

“She needs to set her ego aside first,” a source close to Gabbay told Hadashot TV news late Tuesday, adding that Livni was free to leave the Zionist Union if she wished.

The Zionist Union, an amalgamation of the Labor party and Hatnua, was formed ahead of the 2015 elections.

Yesh Atid leader MK Yair Lapid in the Knesset on December 24, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The turmoil may have been caused by several polls published Tuesday that showed Likud far ahead of any would-be challengers, and Yesh Atid consistently beating Zionist Union in any electoral scenario. Indeed, the only meaningful threat to a Likud election victory would come from an alliance between former IDF chief Benny Gantz, who is expected to launch a new party and run in the April elections, and the Yesh Atid party. Together, Channel 10 reported, they would win 26 seats, just one shy of Likud’s 27.

Livni appeared to attempt to mollify Gabbay on Wednesday, writing in a Twitter post that Zionist Union was “an excellent foundation” for a center-left alliance.

Zionist Union MK Eitan Cabel attends a party faction meeting at the Knesset on January 22, 2018. (Flash90)

“I reiterated last night my consistent message over the past five years to every potential ally,” she wrote. “We must unite our ranks to bring about the revolution, and the Zionist Union is an excellent foundation for that unity.”

She added: “I’ll be the first to give up my place for the sake of any alliance that can win, as I’ve demonstrated in the past.”

On Wednesday morning, Lapid told an Army Radio interviewer that he would not agree to a pact between Yesh Atid and Labor.

“The Labor party and I aren’t in the same place. I’m not on the left. I don’t rule out sitting in a coalition with Likud — but I won’t join a coalition with Netanyahu if he’s indicted,” he said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and then finance minister Yair Lapid attend a signing ceremony at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on September 23, 2014.(Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

He warned centrist parties that failure to unite would ensure a Netanyahu victory. “If the center doesn’t unite behind me, Netanyahu will be reelected. Yesh Atid is the only party with the capability” to win, he insisted.

Netanyahu on Monday called early elections for April, setting the stage for a three-month campaign clouded by a series of corruption investigations against the long-serving Israeli leader.

With the Likud leader holding a commanding lead in the polls, all eyes are on Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit and whether he will decide before April’s elections to press charges against the longtime leader on a series of corruption allegations.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit attends a State Control committee meeting in the Knesset on December 3, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“Avichai Mandelblit needs to tell us before the elections if there is an indictment or not,” Lapid told the Ynet news site. “People need to know what they are voting for.”

Earlier this month, police recommended that Netanyahu be charged with bribery for promoting regulatory changes worth hundreds of millions of dollars to the country’s main telecom company Bezeq. In exchange, they believe Netanyahu used his connections with Bezeq’s controlling shareholder to secure positive press coverage on the company’s popular news site.

Police have also recommended indicting Netanyahu on corruption charges in two other cases. One involves accepting gifts from billionaire friends, and the second revolves around alleged offers of advantageous legislation for a major newspaper in return for favorable press coverage.

Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing, dismissing the allegations as a media-orchestrated witch hunt aimed at removing him from office. With the accusations looming, the upcoming election is expected to emerge as a referendum on Netanyahu, who is set to become the longest-serving premier in Israeli history.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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