Israel Pulse

Livni returns as Israeli opposition leader

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Article Summary
Not everyone in the Zionist Camp welcomes the appointment of Tzipi Livni as head of the opposition, as it comes at the expense of Yesh Atid.

When Avi Gabbay defeated Isaac Herzog last year and was elected head of the Zionist Camp, he could not take over the position of Knesset opposition head, a post reserved for incumbent Knesset members. When the Jewish Agency approved Herzog as its chief in June, the issue of opposition head came up once again. A few weeks later, Gabbay decided that Tzipi Livni would replace Herzog in the post.

Yesh Atid chair Yair Lapid tweeted his congratulations to Livni, stating, “She’s the right woman at the right time.’’ But it was probably the last flattering thing he will say about her until the election.

On July 23, Gabbay and Livni called a press conference. They were all smiles as they announced the decision. Livni will start serving in her new position as of Aug. 1 and enjoy all the benefits that come by law with being a “symbol of state.” They include a security detail, a large office and personal briefings from the prime minister himself on security matters.

Lapid will be the person to suffer most from Livni’s appointment. As of the start of the Knesset’s winter session, Livni will be the most important member of the opposition in the Knesset. Until now, Lapid has enjoyed the status of unofficial opposition leader. The polls showed him flourishing because of the Zionist Camp's weakness, despite it being the biggest party. Now Lapid will lose some of his glory, particularly when it comes to all his trips overseas as (self-appointed) shadow foreign minister. Livni, who actually served as foreign minister and accumulated real diplomatic and political experience, has a clear advantage over him.

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What this means is that the Zionist Camp headed by Gabbay, and with Gabbay’s No. 2 Livni now serving as opposition chair, Lapid has to deal with a major headache. The situation is much more daunting than dealing with Netanyahu and his right-wing government they are all trying to bring down.

But it's also bad news for the center-left camp, which will be plunged once again into an internal battle over who is in charge. Both Gabbay and Lapid consider themselves to be Netanyahu’s natural replacement, but now they will be fighting each other to win the support of their own camp’s voter base. Over the last few weeks, Gabbay has led a vicious campaign against Lapid over his support of the government’s conscription law.

But life won’t be easy for Gabbay either with Livni in the key role of opposition chair. She is much more experienced not only when it comes to diplomatic and security issues, but also as a politician. She was a member of the Security Cabinet for years and seems not to have given up her goal of being prime minister one day.

Gabbay knows all this. He deliberated for quite a while before he made the complicated decision to promote the very person who could be his political executioner at some point. In their agreement, Livni made a commitment to maintaining the partnership between Hatnua and the Labor Party under the umbrella of the Zionist Camp. They also agreed that Gabbay would lead the Zionist Camp in the next election.

But political events, public sentiment and current exigencies often have more power than any formal agreement. “There are some Knesset members in the party who are considering the possibility of deposing Gabbay before the election and replacing him with former Chief of Staff Benny Gantz or even with Livni, if the polls show that they would bring more seats than him,” a senior party member told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity.

Back to Gabbay’s decision. Ever since the approval of Herzog’s appointment as Jewish Agency chairman, the already tense relationship between Gabbay and Livni escalated into low-grade warfare. Then Herzog left his position as opposition chairman, presenting Gabbay, who is not a member of the Knesset, with a real dilemma: Who should he appoint to replace Herzog? As far as Gabbay is concerned, Herzog was the ideal partner ever since he defeated him in the race for party leader in July 2017. Herzog was loyal and coordinated with Gabbay down to the last detail. Most of all, Herzog was the kind of person who would not overshadow him.

Throughout the entire period Gabbay served as Zionist Camp head and Herzog as opposition chairman, Livni shut herself off in her own world. She may have been part of the partnership that created the Zionist Camp, but she was looking into other options for the next election. As head of a separate party, Hatnua, she could run independently or find new partners.

Once Herzog was selected as Jewish Agency head, she put it all on the line and issued a public ultimatum to Gabbay: Either she becomes leader of the opposition or she quits the Zionist Camp. Gabbay was trapped. If he gave up this partnership at a time when his standing in the polls wasn’t very impressive, he could drag Labor to a new low. On the other hand, if he appointed her to the position, he would be putting his own political future at risk.

To make the dilemma even more complicated, Walla released a poll showing that with Livni as head of the Zionist Camp, it would win more seats than Lapid, while the results under Gabbay were less promising.

By appointing Livni, Gabbay proved his pragmatism, his understanding of risk management and his ability to choose between two less-than-perfect options. Outwardly at least, everyone in Labor congratulated Livni, including party members who no longer serve in the Knesset such as former Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Nevertheless, the choice left a sour taste in the party.

Neither Livni nor Gabbay are an organic part of Labor. In other words, the party is being run by power players from the outside. Frustration within the party is also growing because when she renewed her agreement with Gabbay, Livni ensured that she would have a specific number of seats on the Knesset list set aside for her. Meanwhile, Gabbay also has four seats set aside for him as part of an agreement he reached with the party committee. This means that the chances of getting elected to the Knesset in the next election on behalf of the Zionist Camp will be very difficult, if not impossible.

So far, Gabbay and Livni have started off this partnership willingly. At the press conference, they announced that they are going to proceed full force to replace the current government. Gabbay spoke about a moment that he thinks “creates new energies and hope for an alternative government based on different policies, innovation and good people." Livni, who gambled well with her ultimatum for Gabbay, was glowing, and rightfully so. She spoke about how her phone has been ringing off the hook ever since her appointment as opposition chair was announced, and tweeted that it reminded her of a "long-lost sense of hope."

But the actual press conference looked like a rerun of another in December 2014, when Livni and Herzog announced that they were consolidating forces. It is the same hope by the same electorate with the same internal rivalry against Lapid and the same external rivalry against a powerful prime minister, one whose voters are in no rush to abandon.

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Found in: avi gabbay, labor party, yesh atid, isaac herzog, israeli politics, zionist camp, tzipi livni

Mazal Mualem is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse and formerly the senior political correspondent for Maariv and Haaretz. She also presents a weekly TV show covering social issues on the Knesset channel. On Twitter: @mazalm3

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