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Israel Labor number 2 quits politics ahead of leadership race

A man casts his vote during the Israeli general elections in Tel Aviv, Israel on April 9, 2019. Israeli voters on April 9, 2019 began to cast ballot to elect members of Knesset (Israel's parliament). [Faiz Abu Rmeleh - Anadolu Agency]
A man casts his vote during the Israeli general elections in Tel Aviv, Israel on April 9, 2019. Israeli voters on April 9, 2019 began to cast ballot to elect members of Knesset (Israel's parliament). [Faiz Abu Rmeleh - Anadolu Agency]

Israeli Labor Party number two Tal Russo has announced that he will quit politics and not stand in the party’s upcoming leadership race or September’s general election, deepening the party’s ongoing crisis.

Russo – a former army general who oversaw Israel’s 2012 assault on the besieged Gaza Strip – announced today that he will be resigning from politics at the end of the current Knesset term. He has therefore ruled himself out of the Labor party’s upcoming leadership race and the 17 September general election, Israel’s second this year.

The move will come as a shock to Labor, particularly given that Russo only joined the party in February ahead of the 9 April election and was widely expected to run again in September.

Russo explained his decision in a Facebook post, writing: “Friends, I went into politics four months ago with great plans to change the Labor party and the State of Israel, no less. But given the circumstances we find ourselves [in] – early elections and new primaries to choose the leader of the [Labor] party after such a short period of time – I won’t be able to do the things I had hoped.”

He added: “I don’t want to be part of the struggle over an inheritance [of the party leadership], so I remove my candidacy for control of the party and from the Knesset list for the 22nd Knesset [September’s election].”

Russo was seen as a close ally of outgoing party leader Avi Gabbay, who appointed the former general to the number two slot earlier this year. However, following the Labor party’s dire performance in the April election – winning only six seats, down from the 18 it previously held – Gabbay has faced calls to step down as party chief and bring forward a leadership race.

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Gabbay’s fate was sealed last month on the final day of coalition negotiations, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a last-ditch attempt to form a government by reaching out to the various Knesset factions. In need of five seats to secure a majority, Netanyahu approached Gabbay about the possibility of Labor joining the ruling coalition, an offer the party leader declined.

However, Gabbay later admitted that he and Russo had considered Netanyahu’s offer, which would have included burying legislation to bypass the Supreme Court, ending attempts to grant the prime minister automatic immunity from prosecution in his upcoming corruption cases, and granting Labor veto rights in “any anti-democratic legislation”.

This admission sparked anger among key Labor party figures, with Knesset Member (MK) Stav Shaffir telling Israel’s Channel 12 news that “Avi Gabbay has ended his political career. Last night’s events prove it. The Labor party needs to be rebuilt and cleared of old backroom dealings, in favour of a determined party that believes in its ability to win.”

Shaffir added that it was time to “come together, close ranks, examine additional [possible] alliances and form leadership that can stand at the forefront of the fight to save Israeli democracy,” referring to rumours of a Labor party merger with Israel’s other left-wing party Meretz.

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Shaffir is seen as a rising star in the Labor party, with her election in 2013 making her the youngest female MK in Israel’s history. Shaffir shot to fame for her role in Israel’s 2011 “social justice protests”, which saw hundreds of thousands of protesters descend on Tel Aviv to oppose the rising cost of living, housing shortages and deterioration in public services.

Shaffir announced on Friday that she would run in the Labor party’s leadership race, writing on Facebook: “Friends: I am running the for the Labor Party leadership! And I am very excited. Come with me and we will start again […] If until today you have been sitting on the fence and waiting, you have to raise your head. Get up and take power into your own hands.”

Other Labor MKs have also announced their candidacy, including Amir Peretz – who formerly led the powerful trade union federation, the Histadrut, and briefly served as Labor party head between 2005 and 2007 – and veteran Israeli politician Ehud Barak, who served as prime minister between 1999 and 2001. Barak has also previously headed the Labor party, but resigned from politics in 2012.

Both Peretz and Barak had pushed for only Labor’s central committee members to be allowed to select the new party leader, rather than the party’s tens of thousands of members. However, in what the Times of Israel described as a “blow” to the two hopefuls, the party last week shelved the proposal, opting instead for an open leadership race.

Voting will now take place on 2 July, just over two months before Israel goes to the polls for the second time this year.

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