Is Israel's Zionist Camp on the brink of breaking up?

The appointment of Zionist Camp senior Isaac Herzog as chair of the Jewish Agency offers Hatnua leader Tzipi Livni the chance of a lifetime to return to center stage.

al-monitor Labor leader and co-leader of the Zionist Union Isaac Herzog (C) arrives on stage with his wife, Michal, as he reacts to exit poll figures in Israel's parliamentary elections, Tel Aviv, March 17, 2015. Photo by GALI TIBBON/AFP/Getty Images.

Topics covered

avi gabbay, labor party, hatnua party, zionist camp, tzipi livni, isaac herzog

Jun 27, 2018

On June 24, the Jewish Agency approved the appointment of the Zionist Camp’s Isaac Herzog as its next chairman. In accepting the nomination, Herzog effectively resigned his position as Knesset opposition leader. The prestigious appointment generated all sorts of shockwaves, including an ultimatum by the Zionist Camp's Tzipi Livni issued the following day. It was hard to miss the fleeting expression of shock on the face of Zionist Camp leader Avi Gabbay during the party’s Knesset faction meeting, where Gabbay found himself ambushed by Livni.

During a live broadcast, Livni demanded that she be appointed to replace Herzog as opposition chair, or she would end her party’s partnership with Labor. Hatnua, Livni's party, and Labor are the two factions in the Zionist Camp alliance. Livni’s statement, clearly a carefully crafted message, was fired with remarkable precision to catch Gabbay off guard: “I see the opposition leadership as essential for the continuation of the partnership. It can be a great opportunity to strengthen the partnership,” she said. This hit Gabbay before he had even had time to recover from Herzog’s surprise move.

Less than a week after learning that Herzog was the leading contender to head the Jewish Agency, Gabbay was dealt the second blow, even more devastating than the first. Once Gabbay internalized Herzog’s appointment, he actually came to regard it as useful. After all, the position of Jewish Agency chairman, sometimes called the “prime minister of the Jewish people,” is a highly regarded official position. For Herzog, getting it was a personal victory over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s candidate, Likud Minister Yuval Steinitz. At the same time, it also represented a victory for Labor and the center-left camp. Having suffered one defeat after another for the past few years, they could finally enjoy the moment, but it passed in an instant. As soon as the Jewish Agency’s board of directors unanimously approved Herzog’s appointment, the battle to succeed him as opposition chair erupted suddenly and openly.

When Gabbay was elected Labor chair in July 2017 to replace Herzog, he could not assume the role of opposition chair — traditionally reserved for the leader of the largest opposition party — because he was not a member of the Knesset. This resulted in an anomalous situation in which the outgoing Labor chair, Herzog, remained opposition chair, a position considered a symbol of governance, even after Gabbay replaced him as party leader.

Gabbay cannot address the Knesset, nor does he have a security detail, a car or a spacious office at the Knesset. Nevertheless, he got along with Herzog, and although Herzog addressed the Knesset, he never overshadowed Gabbay, and he made a point of working in full cooperation with him. It was all a matter of character and style.

Meanwhile, Herzog has managed to assure himself a soft landing in the Jewish Agency. He will be spared an unknown fate in a party in tatters, according to polls, leaving behind him colleagues now more adrift than ever and squabbling among themselves. In the war of succession, it is not at all clear that Gabby can emerge unscathed against Livni. If he refuses to allow her to serve as opposition chair, he risks her quitting the party and taking her supporters with her. This would be a serious blow electorally, since polls show Livni with six or seven seats.

Hatnua, which Livni founded, joined forces with Labor on the eve of the 2015 election. She joined Herzog in forming the Zionist Camp, serving as his No. 2 but also as co-leader. While the party won 24 seats, it remained in the opposition desert. Gabbay, who did not sign an agreement with Livni, had left the issue of Labor's alliance with Hatnua open. Livni meanwhile has not hidden her disdain for Labor's internecine fighting, complex party leadership mechanism and wheeling and dealing that goes on. The past few months with the Labor chairman, Gabbay, have not been easy for Livni. She watched as he made himself the focus of media attention, and she, being a seasoned politician and considering herself the senior partner, did not like it.

The Zionist Camp's collapse in the polls is not good for the well-being of anyone in the party. With new elections thought to be in the offing, Livni began considering her next move. She stepped up her political activity, revived the Hatnua brand and began acting independently. Most of all, she continued to dream of one day becoming prime minister. With Herzog’s departure, she saw the chance to return to center stage. Her demand to be appointed opposition chair is based on the claim that it is her right according to the alliance agreement between Labor and Hatnua.

The problem Gabbay faces is that Livni’s opportunity could actually bury him. Livni has a prominent media profile in Israel as well as internationally. She is a former foreign minister and was almost elected prime minister. As opposition chair, she will undoubtedly steal public attention from Gabbay.

“Avi Gabbay will quickly find himself struggling to keep his position, because Livni will place herself at center stage,” a Zionist Camp Knesset member told Al-Monitor, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “Then there will be polls showing that she would win the party more seats, and the two of them will start to fight over who will lead the party in the next election.”

Gabbay is fully aware of this, which is why, after he recovered from the shock of Livni’s ultimatum, he made it clear that he wouldn't surrender. According to sources close to Gabbay, there are lots of other good candidates for opposition chair. Take, for example, former Labor Chair Shelly Yachimovich, who has already served as opposition leader. Yachimovich has taken a jab at Livni, tweeting that deciding Herzog's successor should not be done via media campaigns.

Livni is not Gabbay's only problem at the moment. He is also battling two senior Labor members. One is Knesset member Amir Peretz, another former party chair, who filed suit against Gabbay to successfully prevent him from convening Labor's Central Committee in an attempt to increase his power. The other is veteran Knesset member Eitan Cabel, who came out against Gabbay publicly on the committee issue, tweeting on June 22, “This is what the end looks like.”

As if all that were not enough, Benny Gantz, former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, is also breathing down Gabbay’s neck. He is considering joining the Labor Party, and if he does and he polls better than Gabbay, senior party members will attempt to replace the current party chairman.

It has been one year exactly since Gabbay beat the odds, and the polls, by getting elected Labor leader with a promise to win 30 seats for the party. Instead, today he finds himself up to his neck in internecine feuds and a personal struggle to survive.

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