Dramatic Split in Israeli Left as Labor Party Breaks Away From Tzipi Livni

WATCH: Livni taken by surprise at press conference ■ Gabbay: I took shit from Livni ■ Zionist Union fared poorly in polls ■ Center-left playing field gets crowded ahead of April 9 ■ Latest election headlines

Labor Chairman Avi Gabbay and opposition chief Tzipi Livni, January 1, 2019.
Emil Salman

Zionist Union breakup: Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay announced on Tuesday the break-up of Zionist Union, with Tzipi Livni's Hatnuah party. Zionist Union, which won 24 seats in the last election, has tanked in recent polls to as low as nine seats ahead of the April 9 election.

In a press conference, Gabbay said he "still believes in partnerships and connections," but said "successful connections require friendship, abiding by agreements and loyalty to the path ahead."

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>> Tzipi Livni, one of the best prime ministers Israel never had | Analysis

Gabbay wished Livni luck, but the Hatnua leader, who seemed surprised by the announcement, said she would rather not comment. Gabbay's dramatic announcement also took Zionist Union's lawmakers by surprise.

According to Gabbay, despite preserving the union when he was elected party leader, as well as granting Livni the post of opposition head, the public didn't rally behind Zionist Union.

>> Israel election updates:
     ■ Gabbay breaks up partnership with Livni
     ■ Maj. Gen. (ret.) Orna Barbivai joins Lapid
     ■ MK Dov Khenin won't seek reelection
     ■ Shas MK Yitzhak Vaknin tapped as religious services minister
     ■ MK Rachel Azaria won't run with Kulanu

"The public is smart. They see that this is not the case and moved away," he said. In a meeting later on Gabbay said: "I took shit from Livni."

In a press conference on Tuesday afternoon, Livni responded to the announcement, echoing Gabbay's claims that Zionist Union was "not a real partnership" but that she upheld her part. But Gabbay "didn't want it," she said, pointing to the way in which he dismantled Zionist Union. 

Livni said she kept her word, resisting offers to break up Zionist Union, some of which came from within the Labor Party. "Last week I said our priorities should be Israel, the party, and then me," she said. "What you heard today [from Gabbay] is 'me me me.'"

"Today there are no more doubts," Livni stated. "We can't afford ego battles in our camp." The most important goal right now, she said, is regime change. 

A Labor lawmaker, who asked to remain anonymous, said that "time will tell whether dismantling Zionist Union was a smart move. But it shouldn't have been done as a public humiliation to Livni."

A senior source in Livni's Hatnuah party said that she "thwarted a split in the Labor Party last week." According to the source, Livni told eight Labor lawmakers who contemplated breaking from their party that she refuses to lead them. "Hatnuah members warned Gabbay that his caucus was heading toward a split," the source said, noting that MK EItan Cabel (Zionist Union) then said that he has no intention to leave Labor without Livni.

Gabbay announcing Labor split from Livni's Hatnuah.

This latest development adds yet another player to the already-crowded center-left playing field. Other parties preparing to run in the election include Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid, Hosen L'Yisrael, a newly established party by former military chief Benny Gantz, Moshe Kahlon's Kulanu party and new party headed by lawmaker Orly Levy-Abekasis. Parties left of Zionist Union include Meretz and Joint List.

Labor, Israel’s flagship left-wing party, headed then by Isaac Herzog, was resurgent in early 2015 after joining lists with Livni's center-left Hatnuah to form Zionist Union. The combined slate emerged in the 2015 election as Likud’s main competition, leading in most polls by a razor-thin margin. That partnership paid off. Zionist Union won 24 Knesset seats, compared to 15 (Labor) and six (Hatnuah) in the 2013 election. However, Netanyahu won 30 seats and formed the government.

The breakup comes days after the right wing saw its own bloc realigning ahead of the election. On Saturday, the two leaders of Habayit Hayehudi said they were quitting their right-wing party to form a new outfit that would attract both secular and religious voters.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said they would co-chair the new party, Hayamin Hehadash, or the New Right. 

Illustration: Tzipi Livni makes a phone call using Avi Gabbay's phone, as he watches.
Amos Biderman

Bad blood

Haaret'z Yossi Verter wrote last month that Gabbay "has had it with Tzipi Livni - with her endless search, like a restless butterfly collector, for alternative leaders for the center-left, as long as they’re not him." Verter wrote that Gabbay sees her efforts to promote herself and her aims as harmful to the general interest of the center-left camp and to him in particular.

In conversations with confidants, the Labor chairman says he regrets having appointed Livni head of the opposition in July, to replace Isaac Herzog, who became chairman of the Jewish Agency.

“Instead of conducting polls about how we can win, you’re conducting polls about how to beat me, how to push me aside,” he told her at a Knesset meeting. "You are weakening me and, indirectly, all of us."

Maj. Gen. (ret.) Orna Barbivai joins Lapid's Yesh Atid

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid and Maj. Gen. (ret.) Orna Barbivai, January 1, 2018.
\ Ilan Assayag

Maj. Gen. (ret.) Orna Barbivai said Tuesday that she is joining Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid party. At a press conference, Lapid said that he will not give up the leadership in a potential future merger ahead of the election between center-left parties.

Barbivai, who retired from active service in 2014, was the highest-ranking female officer in the Israel Defense Forces and the first female major general. Barbivai served for three years as head of the army’s personnel directorate.

Lawmaker Dov Khenin says won't run in general election

Lawmaker Dov Khenin of the Hadash party, which is part of the Joint List, announced Tuesday that he will not run in the April 9 general election.

At a press conference in the Knesset, Khanin said that although he will not be presenting his candidacy in the next election, he will still be involved in public life.

Khenin first entered the Knesset in 2006, and was reelected by large majorities in all of Hadash’s internal elections for the Knesset slates before the ensuing elections. His Hadash faction became part of the Joint List for the elections in 2015, even though he wasn’t in favor of the faction’s formation and was part of the camp that supported forming a Jewish-Arab slate.

Shas lawmaker Yitzhak Vaknin to be appointed minister for religious services

Lawmaker Yitzhak Vaknin (Shas) will be appointed as religious services minister until after the election, when a new government is formed. The appointment will be brought before the Knesset for a vote on Tuesday.

Vaknin is expected to quit politics following the April 9 election.

Religious Services Minister David Azoulay died in October at the age of 64 after battling cancer during the past few years and his post remain vacant since.

Lawmaker Rachel Azaria says won't run with Kulanu in upcoming election

Knesset member Rachel Azaria (Kulanu) said Tuesday that she will not be running with her party in the next election. Azaria said that Kulanu has shifted to the right during the last Knesset term, and that she "knows for quite some time" that she will not be continuing with the party, headed by Moshe Kahlon.

Speaking to Israel Radio, Azaria said that "the differences in values, in the worldview between me and the party have been growing."

Azaria said she has informed Kahlon of her decision, noting that "it was clear to the both of us."