It is never wise to count out Avi Gabbay.
As the child of Moroccan immigrants who grew up in a transit camp on the outskirts of Jerusalem, he faced a myriad of challenges to overcome. His father was a Bezeq technician for 25 years and the younger Gabbay was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps. He did, but not to become a Bezeq technician. He went on to become the telecom giant’s CEO and one of its most successful managers.
He then helped Moshe Kahlon build Kulanu, and when he quit Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government over the natural gas deal, people thought his political career was over.
But Gabbay wasn’t done. He made an ideological shift, came as an outsider into Labor and swept the party off its feet, becoming its chairman against all odds. Since then, the party has been eulogized repeatedly, especially when it fell to five seats in the polls after former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz’s maiden political speech and again after Gantz merged with Yair Lapid to form the Blue and White Party. But Gabbay fought back and today his party is polling at around 10 seats in the next Knesset.
Gabbay is confident that the number will only continue to grow.
“No politician has overcome what I have over the last 15 years,” he tells The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday at Labor’s Tel Aviv headquarters. “How many analysts said I wouldn’t make it to the election? I’m still here. We came back from death twice during this election, and now everyone says we have the best campaign.”
When asked if he has regrets, Gabbay says that when he took over Labor, he decided right away to crisscross the country in an attempt to attract new constituents instead of first reinforcing the party’s base. He also says that he might have done better if he had invested in journalists and in creating a media support base.
But then again, he says, if he had done that, he might not have had the time to visit 20 hospitals, each for three to four hours, to learn how to improve the health system, something far more important for the State of Israel.
His party, by the way, is the only one so far that has presented a comprehensive plan to rehabilitate the Israeli medical system.
“There is a huge gap between reality and the story we tell about Israel and its economy,” he says. “There is a nice story about hi-tech, but that’s because the government is not involved. Wherever the government gets involved, we see failure, like the current status of the education and health systems.”
His social passion was on exhibit on Monday, when Labor hosted a successful Purim party in which Gabbay announced his support for raising the minimum wage to NIS 7,000 a month and party leaders unveiled its platform in short-but-sweet two-minute speeches and then danced with hundreds of activists. But only the Post reported about the event, even though every media outlet sent reporters to a Blue and White event in the building next door a half hour earlier.
“There are massive gaps between the situation of the party and how it is seen by the press, between me and how I am seen by the press,” he says. “Maybe my relations with the press isn’t what it should be. Coming from the business world, I didn’t realize at first how much that matters.”
The Post asked Gabbay about the best- and worst-case scenarios for Labor in the April 9 election, about what would satisfy him and what would make him turn in the keys to the party the day after. He refuses to answer the latter and he says the best-case was that Netanyahu would no longer be prime minister.
Listing reasons why Netanyahu must go, he complains about young people losing hope in a state that does not serve them well, the health and education systems crashing, the strengthening of Hamas, Iran and Hezbollah remaining in Syria after its civil war, and Netanyahu not taking advantage of his positive relations with US president Donald Trump to advance a peace process with the Palestinians and willing Arab countries.
“There are Arab countries who are very eager to make peace with Israel, but they say we must move forward with the Palestinians first,” says Gabbay, who paid a secret visit to the Persian Gulf as well as another trip to Jordan where he met with King Abdullah.
Knowing the readership of the Post, the Netanyahu failing about which Gabbay speaks most passionately about is the harm done to the relationship between Israel and young, progressive American Jews who support the Democratic Party.
“The loss of US support is the worst threat to Israel’s security ever,” he says. “Due to Netanyahu’s favoritism of one party, we educated a new generation of Democrats to be anti-Israel, to say that we aren’t on their side. This discourse is horrible for Israel.”
Gabbay says Israel has suffered for those policies, even though Netanyahu may have gained personally.
“[Netanyahu] cares only about himself,” he says. “We pay, as a country, by having him in power.”
Unlike Gantz, who was cautious in TV interviews this week to not call Netanyahu corrupt, Gabbay says it outright without holding back.
“He is definitely corrupt,” he says. “In the indictments, there are facts. And after seeing what happened in the gas deal up close, I can say it is 100 times bigger than the submarines. He ran the deal by himself and he never does that unless there is a political gain but there was no political gain. I have no doubt that there were other interests here at play.”
Labor’s campaign has been focusing on painting Blue and White as a right-wing party that would join a Netanyahu-led government. One Labor commercial features a family saying they would vote for Blue and White, until Netanyahu, Culture Minister Miri Regev and Kahanists enter their living room, and they decide to go back to Labor.
The campaign was aided on Monday when tapes were revealed of Gantz saying behind closed doors that he had closed but not locked the doors on entering the coalition.
Asked whether it wouldn’t be better to facilitate a peace process for Gantz to be Netanyahu’s foreign minister, Gabbay laughs.
“There won’t be a peace process with Trump, because Bibi doesn’t want it,” he says. “If he wanted it, he would have advanced it over the past two years. It is better that the world see there is an alternative in Israel.”
Gabbay vows not to join a Netanyahu-led government, even if Gantz was there too and there was a peace process. He says such a process could be supported from outside.
But if Gantz formed the government, Gabbay wants to be there and wants Labor to have a major influence on its policies, with its top candidates as ministers. Gabbay is very proud of Labor’s team of candidates, which he said came about because he worked hard to rid the party of vote contractors and crates of corrupt membership forms.
“We have wonderful women and men, unlike Blue and White and Likud who both have only two women in their top 10,” he says. “Blue and White has not been bringing votes from the Right, which we can do with our socioeconomic plans. The worst mistake of Blue and White has been looking for votes from us.”
Facing the home stretch of the election with 18 days left, Gabbay is excited about the party’s election commercials that will be broadcast and bring the party attention he feels it does not receive from the mainstream media.
As the second-largest party in the outgoing Knesset, Labor will receive plenty of air time. Gabbay will use it to get his message across.
“Only if Labor is strong will there be a change,” he says. “I am not interested in politics except for using it as a tool. I want influence, and I will make sure I get it.”
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