How Israel's Opposition Thwarted the Fall of Netanyahu

Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay pushed for early elections during the government's latest crisis, but colleagues convinced him to reverse course

Labor Party head Avi Gabbay (left) flanked by opposition chair Isaac Herzog (right).
Emil salman

Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay wanted early elections. But a united front of senior figures in Zionist Union – the alliance of Labor and Hatnuah – compelled him to change his mind, which helped head off new elections and extend Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s term into 2019. Thus, the leaders of the main opposition party actually lent a hand to saving the government, political sources told Haaretz.

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After stating on Sunday that he supported elections as soon as possible, Gabbay was approached by Labor MKs Shelly Yachimovich, Isaac Herzog and Yoel Hasson, together with Hatnuah chairwoman Tzipi Livini, and they persuaded Gabbay to retract his support for early elections.

The message was passed on to Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett, who relatyed it Netanyahu, who understood he didn’t have the required majority to disperse the Knesset and call snap elections. At that point Netanyahu acted to end the crisis. His claim to oppose early elections was widely dismissed, with many on both the left and right saying he aimed to win another term in June in the hope of preempting Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit from indicting him for bribery, as the Israel Police have recommended, in ongoing investigations that focus on the prime minister.

In closed-door conversations, Zionist Union members don’t regret the party decision that paved the way to Netanyahu’s continued rule until 2019. Senior party figures believe that preventing early elections and waiting for the attorney general’s decision on whether to indict Netanyahu was the right thing to do.

Bennett and Kulanu chairman Moshe Kahlon have now made it clear they would not topple the government even if the attorney general decides to indict Netanyahu, but will give him a few months more in power, until after his hearing before an indictment was formally presented. The entire process is expected to be delayed due to the state witness agreement with the Netanyahu family’s former spokesman Nir Hefetz, which requires additional meetings in which the police would question Netanyahu.

At the beginning of the week, the Zionist Union realized that Netanyahu was serious about his intention to hold early elections. Addressing a conference Sunday held by the newspaper Makor Rishon and the Israel Democracy Institute, Gabbay said he supported the move.

“I expect nothing from the coalition parties,” Gabbay said. “We’re looking at an amazing occurrence. They’re fighting to preserve the government despite the police recommendations [to indict Netanyahu]. And for what? For another year.”

Gabbay said he had received messages from coalition parties urging him to support Netanyahu’s initiative to advance the elections on condition that the elections are scheduled in September or later, but he rejected them. “We’re not your suckers,” Gabbay said he told them, “and we won’t be used in political calculations intended to sabotage advancing the elections. We’ll support holding elections on the earliest date possible.”

A source close to Gabbay said “this was intuitively right, but a political mistake.”

Following Gabbay’s speech, Hasson, Yacimovich, Herzog and Livni went to Gabbay and said they objected to advancing the elections. Livni, the firmest among them, said the attorney general would not yet have decided whether to indict Netanyahu by June, which meant holding elections in that month would be a boon to the prime minister. If Netanyahu then won the election, he could use his renewed mandate to reshuffle the country’s legal establishment in his favor. At the very least he would claim that the election results proved that the people want him to stay on, despite his alleged crimes.

The other MKs echoed Livni’s stand and said Netanyahu must not be aided in his designs. They urged waiting for an offer from Netanyahu in return for their support for his move, and then acting accordingly. But no offer came from Likud and Gabbay retracted his plan to help advance the elections.

Bennett and Shas chairman Arye Dery then urged the Zionist Union to scuttle the early-election idea altogether.

A senior Zionist Union figure told Haaretz that they did not discuss the party’s dismal standing in the polls, but “clearly we wouldn’t have acted this way if we had 40 Knesset seats in the polls.”

On Monday all the opposition MKs had met in the Knesset. Yesh Atid supported holding elections as soon as possible, as did Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg, in view of the flattering poll results for her party. The Joint List objected due to the date’s proximity to Ramadan. That left the Zionist Union as the deciding factor. Forty-six MKs – Likud (30), Yesh Atid (11) and Meretz (5) favored snap elections. The Zionist Union’s support would have given them a clear majority of 70 MKs, even without Yisrael Beiteinu’s vote.

But then Herzog told the opposition parties that Netanyahu’s move to advance the elections to June was a ploy that could get him out of the investigations.

“Don’t you understand what Bibi’s doing here? He’s trying to booby-trap the attorney general,” Herzog told them.

On Wednesday Bennett and Dery blocked Netanyahu’s plan after mustering at least 61 MKs who objected to dispersing the Knesset, and Netanyahu backed off.

Gabbay’s aides said that throughout the week he supported holding elections as soon as possible and even started setting up campaign headquarters, as the party submitted a bill to disperse the Knesset.