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Israel: Labor moves to oust Gabbay as polls show sharp decline in support

Leader of the Israeli Labor Party, Avi Gabbay [Facebook]
Leader of the Israeli Labor Party, Avi Gabbay [Facebook]

Israel’s Labor Party is trying to oust its chair Avi Gabbay, as the latest polls show a sharp decline in the party’s popularity following his dramatic dismissal of opposition partner Tzipi Livni earlier this week.

Sources inside the Israeli Labor party today revealed that party members have begun collecting the signatures of those in favour of dismissing leader Avi Gabbay, a formality necessary for a party convention to be held that would vote on the move.

Several members of the Knesset (MK) have expressed their support for the motion, including MK Eitan Cabel who said that “in the business world [Gabbay] would have already handed over the keys”. Another Labor MK, Ayelet Nahmias-Verbin, echoed Cabel’s sentiment, saying: “Personally I believe he needs to be replaced.”

Party members cited a drop in public support for the Labor party as the main reason for their bid to oust Gabbay, with the latest polls showing that Labor would gain only seven or eight seats in the upcoming General Election on 9 April, only marginally more than the four-seat minimum threshold usually required to sit in the 120-seat parliament. This is a sharp fall from the 24 seats the Zionist Union – a left-wing alliance between Gabbay’s Labor party and the Hatnua party under Tzipi Livni – won in the 2015 election.

The decline in support is seen as a result of Gabbay’s unceremonious dismissal of Livni earlier this week, during which Gabbay appeared to deliberately embarrass his former partner by not giving her prior warning that she was being fired. Gabbay told a seemingly-routine press conference that he had “hoped and believed that the new partnership [the Zionist Union] would lead to our joint growth, to a real connection […] but this is not the case,” before wishing Livni “good luck with the upcoming elections, no matter which party” she aligns with.

The situation quickly descended into a trading of insults between Gabbay and Livni, with the latter telling Israel’s Army Radio on Wednesday that “everyone who saw what happened yesterday knows he is not a candidate for prime minister”. Livni added that Gabbay’s attitude had always been “me, me, me,” saying: “He doesn’t want a partnership. The way he ended things today proves that.”

A senior party member told Israeli daily Haaretz that “Livni is behind the attempts to unseat Gabbay,” though the extent to which she is or isn’t involved remains unclear.

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For its part, the Labor party hit back against rumours of a coup against Gabbay, today releasing a statement attacking Cabel, the Jerusalem Post reported. In the statement, the party said: “[Cabel’s] subversiveness is nothing new. Cabel is the king of yes-and-no waffling; one thing and its opposite, and then the opposite of the opposite.” Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak also defended Gabbay, but stressed that the centre-left parties must join together to beat current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the election.

Since the Knesset voted to dissolve itself on 27 December –triggering an election – Israeli politics has been fraught with factional infighting and shifting party alignments. Within days of parliament’s dissolution, Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked announced that they would leave the right-wing Jewish Home party to start their own “New Right” (Hayemin Hehadash) movement. Although the “New Right” party will still pursue Bennett’s hawkish security policies and opposition to any future Palestinian state, the move has been interpreted as a bid to appeal to both secular right-wing and ultra-Orthodox voters, as opposed to the religious-Zionist camp that has traditionally supported the Jewish Home party.

Bennett and Shaked’s move left Netanyahu scrambling to save the right-wing coalition upon which his Knesset majority depends. Initial polls suggested that, without its two most prominent members, the Jewish Home party could struggle to reach the minimum electoral threshold required. To counter this possibility, reports quickly emerged saying that Netanyahu is considering lowering this threshold to ensure the Jewish Home’s participation in any ruling coalition after the election.

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