Israel’s main opposition party in dramatic split ahead of election

The main opposition bloc to Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s party dramatically split  on New Year’s Day, leaving the centre-Left Zionist Union without its most prominent politician, just four months out from an election.

Avi Gabbay, Labour’s leader, announced on Tuesday that the party would run independently, without the smaller Hatnua movement of Tzipi Livni, former foreign minister.

"I hoped and believed this alliance would bring about our blossoming, a real connection and we would complement each other. But the public is smart, saw this is not the situation and distanced itself from us," Mr Gabbay said, recognising the Zionist Union’s weak showing in recent opinion polls.

The move appeared to catch 60-year-old Ms Livni, a former peace negotiator with the Palestinians and current leader of the opposition in parliament, by surprise.

"I’m not responding. I will make my decisions. Thank you," she said, and then left the room.

Benjamin Netanyahu sits among Likud party MPs Gilad Ardan (L) and Yisrael Katz (R) during a parliament session in Jerusalem on December 26Credit:

At a news conference later in the day, Ms Livni said she would continue to lead Hatnua into the election, although the party has just five MPs in the 120-member parliament, compared with Labour’s 19 and Likud’s 30.

"What is more important than Labour parting ways with Hatnua is to leave the path on which this government is leading us, so we will be able to separate from the Palestinians," she said, referring to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Zionist Union bloc has lagged behind Likud in recent polling, where it was predicted to capture only eight to nine seats compared with the 24 it holds in the current parliament.

Opinion polls predict Likud will win the election Mr Netanyahu called for April 9, taking between 27 to 31 seats – enough to lead a Right-wing coalition, despite three corruption investigations against him.

An Israeli UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter performs during a graduation ceremony of Israeli air force pilots at the Hatzerim Air Force base in Israel's Negev desert Credit:

Mr Netanyahu has fought off multiple corruption allegations that have plagued him for the last year.

His party has only grown in popularity as regional threats to the Jewish state increase.

He yesterday feted his rapprochement with Sunni Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, as part of his bid to form an bulwark against Israel’s number one foe – Iran.

Israel’s attorney general is expected to announce his decision on whether to charge Mr Netanyahu in the coming months. The premier would not be required to step down if indicted, although could face political pressure to do so.

Indeed, the prime minister said on Tuesday that he would not resign in the event of his indictment.

"Imagine what would happen if a prime minister is ousted before the hearing is finished, and then after the hearing they decide to close the case. It’s absurd. It’s a terrible blow to democracy," he said at a news conference in Rio de Janeiro.

Mr Gabbay’s decision is the latest realignment ahead of the election and more are expected.

On Saturday, Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, two right-wing ministers, announced they were splitting from their Jewish Home party to form a new one that they hope will attract a mixture of secular and religious voters.

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