The ouster of Hatnua Party Chair and chair of the opposition Tzipi Livni from the Zionist Camp in front of the cameras on Jan. 1 was for Chair of the Labor Party Avi Gabbay an act of leadership that was meant to rev up his faltering election campaign for prime minister. But according to responses in the field and various polls, the effect of the ouster shattered not only the Zionist Camp but also both Labor and Hatnua. This is bad news for the left at the beginning of the election cycle. Alliances and unions have not formed yet in the left-wing camp in order to create an alternative for the Likud’s rule headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and this option only grows more and more unlikely.
The Zionist Camp, with its 24 mandates, fell apart in one ugly moment. Much has been written — and will be written — on the event, the likes of which Israeli politics hasn’t seen yet: a party leader brutally on live TV ousts his senior political partner who holds the role of chair of the opposition. To Livni’s credit, it can be said that she recovered quickly from the hit, stood in front of the cameras an hour later and announced that she will continue in her path.
While Gabbay got out of a partnership that burdened and overshadowed him, with his deed he turned his party into a bloody battlefield. It is undoubtedly the worst period in the history of the Labor Party, so much so that there is serious fear for its continued existence. Several prominent Labor Knesset members, including Eitan Cabel, Ayelet Nahmias-Verbin and Yossi Yona, called Jan. 3 for Gabbay to resign from leading the party; several Labor activists are forming a plan to depose him by convening the party institutions. The chance of this happening isn’t great, but it reflects an atmosphere of chaos. The feeling in the party is that it has lost its way, and is on the brink of falling off a cliff. “The significance of this could be the disappearance of a great movement,” Cabel said in an emotional interview to Army Radio Jan. 3. He did not exaggerate.
Livni too is now at a crossroads. The woman who was very close to being Israel’s prime minister, who led a coherent diplomatic agenda of two states and negotiations with the Palestinians, and with this platform even reached 28 mandates in the 2009 election, today heads a party that is not at all certain to pass the vote threshold.
Since the dissolution of the Zionist Camp, Livni has made frequent appearances in the media to say that she feels relief and good about herself. In regard to Gabbay, she said that it is now clear to her that he has no capacity to serve as prime minister and has no path. In an interview to the morning news on Channel 12, Livni said, “We have a mission, and I am now the only one in the field who is still fighting for the diplomatic process.” Livni’s statement is very close to reality. Aside from the Meretz Party, there is no party today in Israel for which the diplomatic process tops its agenda and which does not wink to the right or speak in vague terms.
Already in 2017 it was clear that in the Zionist Camp there were two individuals with different agendas, and it was not at all clear how they could work together. While the Labor Party headed by Gabbay abandoned its platform for evacuating the settlements after he was elected in 2017, in an effort to woo the right, Livni declared that this is not the position of the Zionist Camp.
Human relations aren’t Livni’s strong suit. She left many people maimed on her political path and changed political parties four times. She started in the Likud, left in 2005 with then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for the new Kadima Party and then in 2012 established the Hatnua Party. In 2015, she joined forces with the Labor Party for the Zionist Camp’s joint list.
No doubt Livni knew how to survive and make use of the popularity she had among the public. But in addition she has also been consistent in her diplomatic platform since she left the Likud: Two states for two people. Livni has not let go of this platform that for years has been identified with the Labor Party, whose leader, former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, paid for it with his life.
As public opinion polls and election results in recent years have pointed to the Israeli public’s “move to the right,” more and more parties on the center-left have abandoned the diplomatic agenda. But not Livni. The Kadima Party, which she helped found and even headed for four years (2008-2012), was established on the basis of the idea of separation from the Palestinians. It was its main agenda. After Kadima collapsed, Livni established Hatnua on the same principle. Toward the 2013 election, when the Labor Party headed by Shelly Yachimovich distanced itself from the diplomatic platform and focused on socio-economic issues, Hatnua and Meretz were the only parties that did not mumble and spoke with a clear voice regarding the two-state solution. Livni then won six mandates, which was proof that there is a public in Israel for which the diplomatic issue is important.
Livni now faces a crisis situation and a difficult dilemma. On the one hand, she was the one who called for alliances in the center-left camp; on the other hand, she is splitting it by adding a party to the race that is uncertain to pass the vote threshold. In addition, she believes that she must try to realize her ultimate goal at any price, and that the public should decide. What would happen down the road if she continues to tread water in the polls as election day draws near? The estimation is that Livni would try to join forces with Benny Gantz, head of the Israel Resilience Party, or Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid, although neither is excited about her because of her leftist image.
Meanwhile, five parties are operating on the center-left: Labor, Hatnua, Meretz, Yesh Atid and Israel Resilience. None of them threatens Netanyahu and the Likud. Livni still believes she is the most experienced person in the center-left to be prime minister, as she served as foreign minister and was a member of the senior diplomatic security forums. But not only has she gotten further away from that goal, she finds that the diplomatic banner she has raised and that made her into a strong political brand is now working against her.
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