Gesher (political party)

Leader David Levy
Founded 11 March 1996
Dissolved 2007
Split from Likud
Merged into Likud
Political position Center-right
Alliances Likud-Gesher-Tzomet (1996–1999)
One Israel (1999–2001)
Most MKs 5 (1996–1999, as part of Likud)
Fewest MKs 2 (1996, 2003–2003)

Gesher (Hebrew: גֶּשֶׁר, lit. Bridge), officially Gesher - National Social Movement (Hebrew: גשר - תנועה חברתית לאומית, Gesher - Teno'a Hevratit Le'umit) was a political party in Israel between 1996 and 2003.



Gesher was set up by David Levy on 11 March 1996 as a breakaway from the Likud party during the thirteenth Knesset,[1] after he lost the Likud leadership elections to Binyamin Netanyahu.

Levy refused to accept Netanyahu as the new Likud chairman. The situation in the Likud at the time was stormy. Netanyahu's management tactics were angering many Likud supporters, while his right-wing rhetoric gained the confidence of Sharon, Benny Begin, and the hard-line party members. Levy knew that if he was cowed by his suave nemesis his supporters would either join Netanyahu's camp in order to oppose the new Oslo Accords, or go the opposite direction and back a more socialist candidate. He also knew that Netanyahu would not be willing to give him one of the top four ministries should the Likud return to power after his disastrous term as foreign minister.

Levy mistakenly believed he could draw a mass defection from the Likud of parliament members, and such a disaster would lead senior party members in the Central Committee into a panic that would topple Netanyahu. What instead occurred was that only David Magen, a rather obscure Moroccan politician and former mayor of Kiryat Gat who served as Minister of Economics and Planning in the last Shamir government broke with the Likud. Though many of Gesher's members were derided by the press as lackeys of Levy, Magen would prove to be rather independent, and later broke with Levy to join the Centre Party (then known as Israel in the Centre) in 1998.

Alliance with Likud

Gesher on its own never reached the potential Levy predicted of it, and Netanyahu's sensational campaign to topple Yitzhak Rabin helped revitalize the Likud and bring in new members. One disadvantage for the disaffected populist leader was the constant press attention on the Oslo Accords, waves of terror attacks, rumours of negotiations surrounding the Golan Heights' future, and the low priority that the media gave to economic and labour issues. Levy had to walk a fine line between opposing Netanyahu's hard-line rhetoric too harshly (thereby appearing to be an ally of Yitzhak Rabin), and not making enough noise (which would cause his members to lose interest). The idea of joining Rabin's Labour Party openly even in coalition was at that time still unacceptable to many Moroccans and other Mizrahim resentful of the old Mapai that had preceded Labour.

By winter 1995, Levy was beginning to break under the stress of his first election campaign outside of the Likud. Netanyahu, similarly, needed as much street power as possible, even if Levy's was significantly reduced from the past. Since the assassination of Rabin on 5 November 1995, Netanyahu had been frantically trying to moderate his image from a hard-line demagogue that many bereaved Israelis saw him as, into merely a skeptic who wanted to slow the pace of concessions to PLO leader Yasser Arafat. Levy's inclusion would somewhat bring him closer to that goal without forcing him to take a clear stand in favor of the Oslo Accords. The opposition leader was trying to bridge the gap by recruiting the hard-line Tzomet (Junction) party of Gen. Rafael "Raful" Eitan on the right, as well as the moderate right-wing Gen. Yitzhak Mordechai in the center.

Throughout the spring, Netanyahu and Levy held negotiations, and in the end Levy came down from the tree and agreed to establish Likud-Gesher-Tzomet, a joint three-party list for the May 1996 elections. Though the broad-based coalition at the end of the outgoing Knesset included 37 members (three Tzomet members defected earlier to join Rabin's government) even threatened Labour, which had lost two members to Avigdor Kahalani's Third Way party, a group opposed to any compromise on the Golan Heights.

Though a massive success for Netanyahu, the 1996 elections gained very little for Levy in terms of power within Likud-Gesher-Tzomet. The real no. 2 leader in the Likud was now Mordechai, and the right-wing character of the government was clear from the start. Levy also demanded the Foreign Ministry, which he received, even without being blunted by a deputy. He believed that this way he could remain totally in control of the ministry, but instead he was again overshadowed by Netanyahu, who controlled almost every important foreign policy decision during his term. David Magen was given the post of Deputy Minister of Finance, under Prof. Yuval Ne'eman.

Netanyahu's term as prime minister became a stormy period for Levy and other coalition partners. The Bar-On Affair, an attempt to alter the investigation of Shas leader Aryeh Deri created tension within the partners, as did Netanyahu's unclear policies on peace negotiations. The economic policies of Prof. Ne'eman hurt the Likud's image with the working class, as despite a fall in terror attacks and the adoption of a deregulation agenda, unemployment grew while growth shrank.

Breakway and independence

On January 6, 1998 David Levy quit the coalition along with former ambassador to France and Channel 2 chairman Yehuda Lancry and his brother and former Lod mayor Maxim. Gesher was once again totally independent, and Levy drifted closer to the policies of the Labour Party and opposition leader Ehud Barak. The total lack of progress on the peace front had created cracks in his enemy Netanyahu's foundation. In early 1997 Minister of Science Benny Begin had broken from the Likud to reform Herut, a group opposed to the Wye River Memorandum of that year and the ceding of most of Hebron to Palestinian Authority control, and brought with him fellow Likud members David Re'em and Michael Kleiner. Also, a year after Levy left the Likud, Defense Minister Itzhak Mordechai left the Likud to form Israel in the Center, a group that hoped to compete with Gesher for moderate voters, and took with him David Magen and Dan Meridor from the Likud.

Alliance with Labour

In 1999 a motion of no-confidence vote in the Knesset forced Netanyahu to call early elections for May. Levy had not yet been able to redevelop Gesher's street appeal and was caught with four choices:

1. Back Netanyahu: If the incumbent won Levy would gain far more influence because of the defection of the party's right wing, and if he lost then Levy would be a prime candidate in the post-election primary.

2. Join Ehud Barak: Other small parties were joining the Labour Party in what would eventually be called One Israel. Levy was sure to get a good ministry in the event of a victory.

3. Join Mordechai: The former general is Iraqi, and therefore was guaranteed to draw Mizrahi votes away from the other larger parties, and his centrist platform was very similar to Levy's, yet he started off with far more support.

4. Run Independently: Gesher would have to generate an administrative infrastructure it did not yet have, and would depend on Levy's excellent connections with local activists, many of whom would take votes from the Likud. A gain in Knesset seats would force the next prime minister to reckon with him.

Levy chose the second alternative, because pre-election polls showed a deep slide in Netanyahu's support. The Likud had fallen from 32 seats to only 20 with the defections of Mordechai, Levy, Begin and their supporters. Levy made the decision to merge Gesher into One Israel, and became very much a partner in the new coalition's leadership. This angered many former supporters who viewed this as the ultimate treason either to his Mizrahi followers or the Likud.

With the new system of direct election of the prime minister, and a separate election of the Knesset, the number of parties elected to the body increased markedly in 1999 from eleven to fifteen, and the number would only grow as parties subdivided due to political tensions. The winning faction, One Israel, took only 26 seats, a record low for a governing party, though Barak won 56% of the direct vote for prime minister. Netanyahu's Likud was crushed as expected, winning only 19 seats and leading to his immediate resignation from the Knesset and public life.

Levy once again was chosen to be foreign minister, with his deputy being Nawaf Mazalha (One Israel), an Arab Israeli with less experience than he. However, Barak continued Netanyahu's policy of meddling in the Foreign Ministry, with Levy no more than a passive partner.

Second breakaway and independence again

Gesher quit the coalition in April 2000, both in response to Barak's desperate attempts to move peace negotiations forward, and in protest to the announced plan to withdraw Israeli military forces from Lebanon.

Levy was the first minister in Barak's government to resign when his demands were not met. He reformed Gesher along with Maxim Levy and rookie legislator Mordechai Mishani. Like Netanyahu, Barak failed to preserve the cooperation once enjoyed by his coalition; the leftist Meretz party left in the end of June that year, the National Religious Party(NRP), Shas, and Yisrael BaAliyah only two weeks late. In addition Barak's popularity plummeted following the outbreak of the Second Intifada in September 2000. By November the prime minister had resigned in order to bring new elections that would take the form of only a direct vote for prime minister. This hurt Levy, because the format limited the choice in the end to a ballot between Barak, and opposition leader, Likud's Ariel Sharon.

Out in the cold

The Prime Ministerial election in February ended with a landslide victory for Sharon.

The new government offered Levy less benefits than Barak's: Because the Likud had only 19 seats, they were forced to form a coalition with One Israel, Shas, Yisrael BaAliyah, One Nation, National Union-Yisrael Beiteinu, United Torah Judaism, and the NRP. Sharon was able to form a coalition without Levy, meaning that for only the second time since 1977 he was left without a ministry in a new government.

In February 2002 One Nation quit Sharon's government to protest his disastrous economic parties. Their leader, Histadrut Labour Federation chairman Amir Peretz, has many similarities to Levy, with one of the few differences being that he had broken from Labour and not the Likud. One month later the rightist National Union-Israel Beiteinu quit the coalition, claiming that Sharon's restraint policy was equivalent to appeasing the PLO.

Back in the coalition and merger with Likud

This situation allowed Levy to enter the coalition in early April, though with almost no influence; he was named Minister Without Portfolio. Not long afterward Shas was fired from the government and was allowed back in, cementing Sharon's stability as prime minister at least until the end of the year. One Israel quit in November 2002 to force elections for January 2003.

Levy's position for the elections for the 16th Knesset was precarious. He stood to gain nothing running with Gesher. With the abandonment of the direct for prime minister, the Likud was gaining support while sectarian parties were falling apart. Levy left Gesher and moved back into the Likud, in a controversial act that created a lot of disagreement among Gesher members. In a meeting that was held by the party's members following Levy's move, Etty (Estee) Shiraz, the party's head of communications at that time, was elected as the head of Gesher instead of David Levy and led Gesher in the elections to the 16th Knesset.[2] Levy and his supporters objected in a surprising petition to prevent Shiraz and the rest of Gesher members from continuing the party's activity, and asked to dissolve the party and relate to his move as a merge of his political party in its entirety.[3] The struggle continued years later, while Shiraz and other members of the party are trying to rebuild Gesher and transform it into a modern social party appealing to Israel's young generation of academics and professionals, and David Levy and his supporters seeking to dismantle it. David Levy was elected as a member of the 16th Knesset but did not get a realistic place on the Likud list in the election to the 17th Knesset and disappeared from the political arena. Shiraz moved to the US in 2003, while the rest of the party's members continued the legal process which lasted a few years. In 2007, the Court decided to dismantle Gesher and the party ceased to exist.

David Levy was elected as a member of the 16th Knesset but did not get a realistic place on the Likud list in the election to the 17th Knesset and disappeared from the political arena. At the end of a legal battle, which lasted a few years, the Court decided to dismantle Gesher and the party ceased to exist.


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