Avi Gabbay’s Labor pangs

The new opposition leader’s uniqueness lies not in his social roots, but in his corporate career and political virginity.

Avi Gabbay, the leader of Israel's centre-left Labour party, delivers his victory speech after winning the Labour party primary runoff, at an event in Tel Aviv, Israel July 10, 2017. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Avi Gabbay, the leader of Israel's centre-left Labour party, delivers his victory speech after winning the Labour party primary runoff, at an event in Tel Aviv, Israel July 10, 2017.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
“I do not accept the people’s verdict,” Labor Party mandarin Yitzhak Ben-Aharon said famously on the fateful night of May 17, 1977, as exit polls indicated that Israel’s founding establishment had lost power for the first time in the history of the Jewish state.
Thrust overnight from power’s pinnacle to the political wilderness, many in the shattered Labor Party resorted to such denialism, refusing to realize how badly they had alienated broad sections of Israeli society.
Although Labor has returned to power several times since, the four decades since 1977 have generally been dominated by a new hegemon, the Likud, as discussed here earlier this year (“Has it really been 40 years since the ‘Mahapach’?” June 26) Now, more than 18 years since its last electoral victory, Labor has turned to Avi Gabbay, a political novice and partisan stranger, in its quest to shake off the aristocratic image that has been haunting it for 40 years.
Unprecedented in Israel, it is a daring choice that, like all adventures, may ultimately end up redeeming, but might, by the same token, prove disappointing and also downright reckless.
The image problem that guided 30,500 party members as they crowned the 50-yearold Gabbay in Labor’s primary election in July – was actually about substance.
Yes, like all Labor parties, Israel’s also would like to be recognized as the party of the proletariat, but the fact is that David Ben-Gurion’s successors became identified with the corporate, academic and cultural elites. Worse, Israel’s Labor came to be seen as a condescending establishment whose electoral collapse reflected decades of social aloofness, discrimination and provocation.
A new documentary film drawing large crowds to Israeli theaters these days, “The Ancestral Sin” directed by David Deri, sheds light on the roots of the intense hatred Labor’s leaders sowed in the 1950s as they set out to settle Middle Eastern immigrants in new, lifeless, remote towns.
“The stars aligned,” recalls one of the film’s interviewees, the late geographer Elisha Efrat, referring to three circumstances.
“There were newcomers; they lacked capital, meaning you could do with them whatever you pleased; and there were the endless lands conquered in 1948,” he said to the camera, concerning the Negev Desert where poor towns like Yeruham, on which the film focuses, were planted.
Then a government urban planner andlater a Hebrew University professor, Efrat confirmed what documents exposed in the film charge, namely, that penniless, undereducated immigrants from the Middle East were led to the new towns by coercion, and then made to stay there by manipulation.
For instance, a bureaucratic directive instructed Labor Ministry officials to avoid employment for immigrants who tried to leave towns like Yeruham to seek their fortunes in central Israel. Housing Ministry officials were ordered to block such applicants’ public housing requests.
Worse, Jews who emerged from Poland in 1956-1960, when the reformist Gomulka government allowed Jewish emigration, were not sent to the new towns: officially, because Labor’s bureaucrats assessed that those Polish Jews would not cooperate with such an imposition, and unofficially – one suspects – because the mostly European- born officials saw the Polish immigrant as one of them.
While such systematic discrimination happened in the geographic periphery’s 31 immigrant camps, social wrath and political alienation were also brewing in 98 camps planted alongside veteran towns throughout central Israel where the rest of the Middle Eastern immigration crowded; places like the ma’abara (transition camp) of Talpiot, which sprawled along south Jerusalem’s Hebron Road, where a phalanx of tin, wood and asbestos shacks abutted what then was the Jordanian border.
In the winter of ’67, three years after a couple of Moroccan immigrants arrived there with their six children, the seventh was born into their shack in the Talpiot transition camp. His name was Avi Gabbay.
THE SHACK of his infancy, along with all the transition camps of the 1950s, was gone by the time Gabbay entered first grade.
As Israeli paradoxes go, the strip of slum land where his parents arrived in 1964 became prime real estate after its evacuation; what had originally made it dirt cheap – the proximity to enemy land – now made it a newly united Jerusalem’s lucrative observation point overlooking the Temple Mount.
The row of sorry shacks where Avi Gabbay learned to walk and talk thus made way for the posh villas that to this day line well-todo Caspi Street.
The shacks’ inhabitants, of course, were no longer there when the new villas were built, having been relocated to new shoebox apartments in the faceless housing projects that still line the railway tracks where locomotives chugged those years between Baka and Talpiot, before descending to Tel Aviv.
Seen through the train cars, those drab, ungardened housing projects hinted at the wrath with which their mostly Middle Eastern dwellers remained imbued, despite their new housing.
Whether or not it was justified, the feeling of discrimination was sharp and also passed down to the next generation. That is what fueled, for instance, the producer at the heart of the documentary about the development towns, David Deri, who would not forgive the establishment that bussed his bewildered parents from Haifa Port and dumped them in Yeruham, the forlorn desert town from which he would much later climb his way to Tel Aviv’s filmic scene.
Gabbay’s experience was entirely different.
First, thanks to his father’s job as a mechanic in the Communications Ministry and his mother’s modest salary as a supervisor in a dormitory for handicapped children, the family of 10 managed a small apartment in a better building than the projects, if even just around the corner from them.
But Avi’s great opportunity hid not in his parents’ employment, but in his own education.
An aptitude test he took at age 10 in his neighborhood’s Geulim School formally defined him as a gifted student. That classification – made, incidentally, just when Labor first lost power – provided the boy with a key to his future. He would make the most of it.
What began with special courses in assorted subjects – “a state-paid cab would take me to things like a meeting with the children’s book author Devorah Omer,” he recently reminisced – later led him to three of the veteran elite’s hothouses.
The first was Gymnasia Rehavia, the Jerusalem high school whose alumni include Supreme Court justices, IDF generals, government ministers and a slew of scientists, literati and captains of industry. From there, the newly graduated Gabbay proceeded to the IDF’s Unit 8200, the Military Intelligence outfit whose veterans include many of Israeli hi-tech’s legendary inventors and entrepreneurs.
Having served five years in 8200 and ultimately risen to the rank of major, Gabbay earned an economics degree and MBA at Hebrew University with which he was accepted to his biography’s third elitist landmark – the Treasury’s Budget Department in Jerusalem – from which scores of economists have proceeded to senior corporate positions in Tel Aviv. Gabbay would soon follow in their footsteps.
After four years supervising the Communications Ministry’s spending, Gabbay joined Bezeq, the telecommunications conglomerate he had been regulating and overseeing.
By then 32 years old, Gabbay was now a senior assistant to the director general of the company where his father had eked out a living as a mechanic.
Proverbial though this turn of events was, it was but the promo of a meteoric career’s improbable course.
Following eight years as director, successively, of human resources, strategy and Bezeq International – the company’s long-distance calling subsidiary ‒ Gabbay was appointed Bezeq’s CEO. At 40, the boy from south Jerusalem’s immigrant shacks was now in charge of 15,000 workers in a publicly traded company with a market capitalization of some $5 billion.
Gabbay led the telecom giant for six years during which time he shepherded its journey through a new era’s two challenges, one technological and the other commercial ‒ the first being the transition to Next Generation Network, and the second, adjusting to a previously cartelistic cell phone market’s deregulation.
All this entailed working opposite then-communications minister Moshe Kahlon, who established his own party, Kulanu, the year after Gabbay completed his term as Bezeq’s CEO. Kahlon invited him to join his political start-up. Gabbay agreed and, soon enough, at 47, the boy from south Jerusalem’s immigrant shacks was the fourth Netanyahu government’s environment minister.
Although by then well known in business circles, Gabbay was politically anonymous as he took his seat at the cabinet table in spring 2015, but he soon became noticed, in two ways ‒ first, he cut the power stations’ usage of coal by 15%, and then he voted against the development plan for the country’s offshore gas fields, charging that its pricing formula favored the drilling companies at the expense of the citizens.
Gabbay thus added to his original ticket, defender of the environment, the much more powerful ticket of defender of the weak. In spring 2016, he added to his evolving political profile a third ticket, defender of clean politics. Having learned of Netanyahu’s removal of defense minister Moshe Ya’alon to make way for Avigdor Liberman, Gabbay announced his resignation, explaining, “It was one frog I could not swallow,” and adding that the move was exceptional “even in the cynical world of politics.”
He thus parted ways with his political patron, Kahlon, who was, for his part, deeply offended, having apparently assumed that Gabbay would be a grateful recruit and an obedient protégé.
Just where Gabbay would head next was unclear until he formally joined the Labor Party a half year after leaving the government.
Three months later he said he was running for Labor’s leadership. Four months on, he stunned all by coming in ahead of seven rivals in Labor’s primaries’ first round, including then-party chairman Isaac Herzog.
Gabbay thus proceeded to a runoff election against former party chairman, Amir Peretz.
The 65-year-old Peretz, a lifelong politician who had been defense minister and before that chairman of the Histadrut, was expected to win handsomely, having garnered 32%, as opposed to Gabbay’s 27%. Instead, when the runoff ballots were opened, Peretz learned he had lost, 52%-48%, to a man who less than a year earlier was not even a member of the party.
Nothing of the sort had ever happened in Israel, which, of course, made many wonder where this bombshell came from, besides asking where it might lead.
GABBAY’S NOVELTY is not in his social background. Peretz preceded him in climbing to Labor’s leadership from the social periphery.
In fact, Peretz’s biography is much more similar to those decried in Deri’s documentary.
Unlike Gabbay, who was born in Israel, Peretz was born in Morocco, and unlike Gabbay, who was raised in Jerusalem, where he proceeded to one of its elitist high schools, Peretz was raised in remote Sderot.
Indeed, in this social respect, Gabbay is almost antithetical to the proletarian Peretz, who still lives in Sderot, the development town outside Gaza where he arrived at age four. Labor’s new chairman lives in a three-level, $2 million villa in north Tel Aviv’s affluent Tel Baruch neighborhood, a light-year from his infancy’s shack, and around the corner from well-born politicians such as Isaac Herzog, Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid.
What sets Gabbay apart, then, is not his social profile, but his political virginity and corporate past.
Gabbay has never held elected office, and even now, as party chairman, he has yet to become a lawmaker, which is why his predecessor, Herzog, continues to serve as the formal head of the opposition. Peretz, by contrast, has been in politics since his election as mayor of Sderot in 1983.
In this respect, Gabbay’s ascent modestly echoes the zeitgeist inspired by the meteoric appearances of Donald Trump in the US and Emmanuel Macron in France.
It is certainly what he would like to think,though he says the analogy between him and the French president lies not in the latter’s success, which Gabbay realizes he has yet to emulate, but in their professional backgrounds.
“We both came from the world of business,” he says, “and we both bring a new discourse, one that does not speak in sound bites.”
The comparison to Macron may or may not materialize, but there is no arguing that Gabbay’s emergence at Labor’s helm was until recently as unthinkable as Macron’s landing in the Elysée Palace.
Gabbay’s professional history is a lightyear away from those of Labor’s seven prime ministers who were either pre-statehood pioneers or products of the Jewish state’s military-industrial complex. For any of them, from Ben-Gurion to Ehud Barak, to arrive at the premiership with an estimated personal fortune of $15m. – as Gabbay reportedly accumulated in salaries, options and bonuses – was unimaginable.
In this regard, by preferring Gabbay the corporate executive over Peretz the union leader, Labor’s members made a transition of the sort Britain’s Labor made between 1983 and 1994 when it shifted from the radical Michael Foot to the pragmatic Tony Blair.
Gabbay indeed lacks Peretz’s hostility to the corporate elite, which the latter confronted daily as leader of the Histadrut. Moreover, as a corporate executive, Gabbay actually fired hundreds of employees in repeated cutback plans even as he earned some of the country’s highest salaries.
Gabbay’s focus, therefore, is to represent what can be described as “capitalism with a human face.” Then again, his plans for now remain vague on details.
Some of his stated aims ‒ such as building 300,000 apartments in public-housing programs; doubling the wages of combat troops; spending an additional 100 billion shekels on infrastructure; adding hours to the school day; and increasing social spending – demand fortunes whose budgetary origins Gabbay (whose name, incidentally, means tax collector) so far has not detailed.
LABOR MEMBERS seem to care for all this even less than they care for their new leader’s capitalistic history. What they want is what they haven’t seen in more than 18 years – victory.
So marginalized has Labor become that besides being repeatedly trounced by Likud it was also eclipsed by a succession of centrist newcomers from Shinui and Kadima to Yesh Atid.
As Labor’s membership sees things, more than three decades after its founders’ socialism was shed for the capitalism that sculpted its new leader, Israel is now ripe for a backlash of social compassion.
This assumption makes sense considering the social activism and street protests of recent years. What’s less convincing is Labor’s implicit assumption that the swing vote, particularly those in it who abandoned Labor, is ready to forget its role in generating the Oslo Accords.
On this front, Gabbay seems to offer neither a new idea about the future nor introspection about the past. As goes without saying in his new party, he says he backs the two-state solution, as well as a settlement freeze and deal with the Palestinian Authority concerning Jerusalem’s Arab neighborhoods.
He also warns that Israel’s current policies lead toward a binational state and has stated he will not admit the Arab Joint List to his coalition.
Gabbay must know that this hardly adds up to game-changing gospel, which is why his discussion of all things related to the Mideast conflict remains minimal. Conversation with the voters, if it’s up to him, would be exclusively about social and economic issues.
In this, too, Gabbay differs from Peretz, who was part and parcel of the circle that surrounded Shimon Peres, produced the Oslo Accords and was personally identified with them.
Gabbay not only has nothing to do with this history, he has confessed to have once voted for Likud, a choice he defended by saying he had been raised to admire Ariel Sharon as a warrior and, therefore, thought he was the right man to lead the war on the Palestinian terrorists Israel was facing at the time.
Now, Gabbay wants Labor’s estranged voters to see in him the fighter who will lead the war on social injustice.
Yes, the poverty into which he was born is by now a distant memory. Even his wife, Ayelet, a 45-year-old educator with whom he raises their three children, is a product not of his biography’s humble beginnings, but of his elitist aftermath, having met her as a fellow officer in Unit 8200.
And, yes, unlike angry descendants of the Middle Eastern immigrations, from filmmaker Deri to the ministers of Shas, Avi Gabbay seems to hold no grudge against the Labor establishment that led his parents to the shack where he was born. That establishment, he says, was the same one that gave him the educational opportunity of his life back when he was 10.
Instead, these days, he goes from one working-class neighborhood to the next and, looking local audiences in the eyes, the expression on his unsmiling face effectively says three very effective things even before his soft-speaking lips start moving: I am one of you. I made it big. And you know I care.
Gabbay’s first few weeks on the job already have been rocky as he met some opposition while getting his new party to increase his powers even while polls stubbornly refuse to promise him just one vote from the Right or even the Center. In fact, the polls suggest his following for now would hardly win the Zionist Union 20 of the 24 Knesset seats it currently holds.
Then again, a mere six months ago no poll even hinted that Avi Gabbay would now be Labor’s candidate for prime minister.