Middle Israel: Why the losers lost

The short-lived successes of Naftali Bennett, Avi Gabbay and Orly Levy-Abecassis had different origins, but their self-destructions were all the same.

Labor leader Avi Gabbay speaks to mayors from his party Thursday in Haifa (photo credit: ELAD GUTMAN)
Labor leader Avi Gabbay speaks to mayors from his party Thursday in Haifa
(photo credit: ELAD GUTMAN)
‘When you win, nothing hurts,” said football legend Joe Namath, a hard-won insight no one vindicates better than the generations of Israelis who voted Likud.
The big winners in this week’s election, Benjamin Netanyahu, his party and its voters, emerged from the contest so victorious that right now they feel none of his legal situation’s pain.
Across the aisle, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz also emerges from his political baptism with little pain. No, he hasn’t won, but he attracted a huge following before serving even one day as a lawmaker. That’s a feat second only to Dwight Eisenhower’s leap from Columbia University’s presidency to the White House.
Netanyahu’s and Gantz’s personal accomplishments bring between them another winner, Israeli politics, as they unwittingly restored the two-party system that had eroded steadily since 1996.
The outgoing Knesset’s largest parties, the Likud and the Zionist Union, had 30 and 24 seats, respectively. The incoming Knesset’s two dominant parties will command some 70 seats, the largest such total since 1992, when the Labor Party and the Likud won, respectively, 44 and 32 seats.
That will reduce smaller coalition parties’ leverage. It also means that if an indicted Netanyahu steps down, the two parties can easily form a unity government, in which case the winner will be the Jewish state.
These winners, both actual and prospective, are big stories, but the election’s big losers – Orly Levy-Abecassis in the Center, Naftali Bennett on the Right, and Avi Gabbay on the Left – are no less telling, maybe more.
THE DAUGHTER of David Levy, the Moroccan-born construction worker turned foreign minister, Orly Levy personified the social ascent of the great immigrations of the 1950s.
The 45-year-old mother of four earned a reputation as a diligent and socially conscious lawmaker in Avigdor Liberman’s faction. Eloquent, studious and suave, the trained lawyer and former model was walking proof of the speed with which the Middle Eastern immigrations’ children were benefiting from Israeli society’s breakneck social mobility.
Yet it was this very mobility that led Levy to believe she was ready for national leadership, after Liberman failed to grant her one of his party’s cabinet seats. Tragically, she overrated herself, thinking that the combination of her parliamentary record, lineage and looks would produce a party of some seven seats.
Curiously, the daughter of the humbly born immigrants who was born and raised in dusty Beit She’an went the way of the well-born children of Israel’s founding elite, the so-called princes who tried and failed to become national leaders, from Bennie Begin and Yair Shamir to Tzipi Livni and Avraham Burg.
Blinded by very premature polls, Levy was this week brought down to size, as the voters left her well under the electoral threshold. Insult, in this case Levy’s treatment by Liberman, is insufficient reason to establish a political party.
NAFTALI BENNETT’s case is different from Levy’s, as he was born to middle-class American parents of three boys who worked in real estate development and public administration, unlike Levy, who was raised by a homemaking mother of 12.
Moreover, Bennett’s rashness when he split his original party, Bayit Yehudi, reflected his roots in the hi-tech and venture-capital industries, where he became a millionaire.
That ecosystem of fast cash and skyscraping jet-setters is the perfect opposite of the social and geographic periphery where Levy matured, which also explains the two’s inverted economic views, with Levy championing social spending and Bennett preaching small government and unbridled capitalism.
Even so, Bennett was driven to his fateful mistake by the same bad energies that drove Levy: insult and ego.
Like Levy, and like so many others who over the years worked for Netanyahu, Bennett was hurt, with bad blood originating in the days when he was Netanyahu’s chief of staff, and later culminating in the prime minister’s reported attempt to tarnish the public image of Bennett’s wife.
Bennett was altogether flabbergasted by Netanyahu’s refusal to make him defense minister following Liberman’s resignation last year. Alas, just like Levy’s anger after she wasn’t made a minister, such personal disappointment is no reason to establish a party, and no effort to wrap such a cause in ideological cellophane will make it an effective political cause.
Hopefully, future founders of political parties will learn from these debacles to verify they have not only engines but also passengers and road maps.
Sad though Levy’s and Bennett’s political crashes are, they pale compared with Avi Gabbay’s.
SOCIALLY, the fallen Labor Party leader’s story welds Levy’s and Bennett’s, as he was born to Moroccan immigrants in a transit camp in southern Jerusalem, and by age 40 was CEO of Bezeq, one of Israel’s largest and most valuable companies.
Politically, however, the 52-year-old self-made millionaire’s story was different not only from that pair’s, but from anyone’s, as he became the leader of a party he had joined only several months earlier, and whose political DNA was entirely different from his.
The corporate mentality Gabbay brought was alien to the party that was built to foster egalitarianism and to fight for the working class.
After his embattled party catapulted him to its helm, Gabbay crisscrossed the country to meet with activists and to tell them what he thought. That’s what CEOs do when assuming a new company’s leadership. It’s not what a depressed political party’s leader should do.
Such leaders should listen rather than talk, and in Labor’s case the people who should have been debriefed were not those who still voted Labor, but those who had abandoned it in droves.
Tragically, like Bennett and Levy, Gabbay listened to himself rather than to the people. That is why this well-intended but politically inept threesome was left dumbfounded, once the people were finally given their say.
The writer’s new book, Mitz’ad Ha’ivelet Hayehudi (The Jewish March of Folly, Yediot Sfarim, 2019), is an interpretation of the Jewish people’s political history.