ANALYSIS: An unforgettably Jewish politician

But ironically, to win voters, Gabbay must turn to the Right, not the Left. In fact, he must temporarily forget that his left hand is there.

Labor party leader Avi Gabbay (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Labor party leader Avi Gabbay
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
At the height of traditional Jewish weddings, the groom recites an unforgettable verse from Psalm 137: “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning.”
Labor leader Avi Gabbay recently has been acting like an overly eager groom desperately seeking the bridal dowry of Center-Right voters – he has been wooing them with his right hand, while trying to forget that he still has a hand on the left.
Gabbay said recently that there would be no need to evacuate settlements in a peace deal; that he would not sit in a coalition with the Joint (Arab) List; that he was not sure if there was a partner on the Palestinian side; and that “the whole Land of Israel is ours, because it was promised to our patriarch Abraham by God.”
When Gabbay recalled to students in Beersheba on Monday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had whispered that “the Left forgot what it means to be Jewish” in the ear of the late Sephardi kabbalist Rabbi Yitzhak Kadourie 20 years ago, he was not just being nostalgic. Gabbay was staying on message, following his political strategy of shifting the Zionist Union rightward.
“Do you know what the Left did in response to [what Netanyahu said]?” Gabbay lamented to a questioner at the event.
“It forgot what it means to be Jewish. They said: ‘They say it about us but now we are just liberals;’ It is not true. We are Jews, and we must speak about our Jewish values.”
It was not the first time Gabbay has cited Netanyahu’s infamous statement to Kadourie.
He has used it whenever he has briefed journalists about his political strategy.
But the statements of Netanyahu and Gabbay were different in three ways.
First of all, Netanyahu whispered to an elderly rabbi, hoping no one else would hear.
Gabbay spoke loud and clear, hoping someone would notice – on a Monday when Netanyahu gave a speech at the Knesset that Gabbay overshadowed, overcoming his disadvantage of not having the platform of an MK.
The second difference was the context. Netanyahu’s second sentence to Kadourie was “They want to abandon our security to the hands of the Arabs.”
Netanyahu’s definition of “what it means to be Jewish” was to maintain land in Judea and Samaria. Gabbay was referring to having pride in Jewish values.
The third difference is that, 20 years ago, Israel was relatively divided between the Right and Left. Netanyahu defeated incumbent Shimon Peres in the 1996 election by just 29,457 votes. Since then, the percentage of Israelis who define themselves as left-wing has fallen dramatically, persuading the last three Labor leaders to define themselves as anything but Left.
Netanyahu received advice ahead of that election from his strategist, the late Arthur Finkelstein, who found that when asked to choose between being Jewish and Israeli, a majority of centrist, undecided voters picked Jewish. The result of Finkelstein’s research was the “Bibi is good for the Jews” slogan in the crucial final days of the victorious campaign.
Ahead of the next election, there will be plenty of available votes in the Center of the political map. Some will be self-defined traditional Jews who voted Likud in the last election.
Others will be those who voted for Shas, which may not cross the electoral threshold.
Gabbay has been speaking their language in a way his primary rival for centrist votes, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, cannot because of Lapid’s secularist image. Lapid unfairly inherited the image from his father, the late Shinui leader Yosef (Tommy) Lapid, and he cannot shake it.
Anything Jewish that Lapid does looks less than genuine.
Gabbay might not keep kosher any more than Lapid, but because of his right-wing, religious upbringing and family, it looks believable.
In the last few elections, voters to the left of Likud have joined together backing whichever candidate they believed had the best chance to beat Netanyahu.
If Gabbay can persuade them he has a better chance than Lapid, it could mean an additional 10 mandates.
But, ironically, to win those voters, Gabbay must turn to the right, not the left. In fact, he must temporarily forget that his left hand is there.
If he wins the bride – and the election – he could find that hand again after the wedding.