Labor’s new leader sets his sights on Israel’s top job

Avi Gabbay succeeded in tapping in to a powerful desire for change, which he hopes will take him all the way to Balfour.

Avi Gabbay delivers his victory speech after winning the Labor Party primaries (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Avi Gabbay delivers his victory speech after winning the Labor Party primaries
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
AVI GABBAY took the Labor party by storm. His election as Labor’s new leader in the party primary runoff vote on July 10th was one of the most remarkable political victories in Israeli politics.
Gabbay, who few predicted would reach the runoff, defeated former party leader Amir Peretz, clinching 52% of the ballots cast. He described his achievement as the “victory of hope,” telling his enthusiastic supporters, “Tonight, we begin the campaign to replace the government.”
Gabbay, who seven months ago was a somewhat anonymous minister of environmental affairs for Moshe Kahlon’s centrist Kulanu party, emerged victorious despite the virtual wall-to-wall endorsement by the existing Labor leadership, together with Histadrut trade union federation boss Avi Nissenkorn, for Peretz.
Far from charismatic, Gabbay succeeded in tapping in to a powerful desire for change – Israel’s version of the global protest vote that has seen Brexit, followed by the election of relative outsiders Donald Trump in the US and Emmanuel Macron in France.
Gabbay joined Labor only six months ago after resigning from the government of Benjamin Netanyahu to protest the firing of Moshe Ya’alon and his replacement as defense minister by Avigdor Liberman.
The 40-year-old Gabbay is the quintessential Israeli rags-to-riches story.
Born to Moroccan immigrant parents in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Baka, the seventh of eight children, Gabbay followed his father’s footsteps and joined the Bezeq telecommunications company, eventually rising to the position of CEO before entering politics.
If nothing else, his victory has already succeeded in injecting new life into the moribund Labor party, which many analysts had written off as a spent force in Israeli politics.
His stunning victory had an immediate impact on the electoral map. The first two polls published after the primary vote showed the Labor-led Zionist Union surging ahead impressively, overtaking Yesh Atid, led by Yair Lapid, which had established itself in the polls as the preeminent opposition party challenging the Netanyahu government.
Israeli TV’s Channel 2 news poll gave the Zionist Union 20 seats, whereas the Channel 10 news poll found that the Zionist Union would win 24 seats, if elections were held today. Yesh Atid is no longer the second-largest party, dropping to 18 seats in the Channel 2 poll and 16 according to Channel 10.
Moshe Kahlon is another big loser from Gabbay’s victory. Kulanu, which Gabbay helped establish together with Kahlon, lost two seats in the Channel 2 poll and four according to Channel 10.
On the question of who is best suited to be prime minister, Netanyahu continues to lead by a large majority, with 37% and 34% in the two polls. But significantly, Lapid no longer comes in second as the person best suited to be prime minister, receiving 12% in both polls and trailing behind Gabbay, who received 14% and 13% in the polls.
“There is a phenomenon here. The people who voted for the Zionist Union, and until last week were saying in the polls that they would vote for Yesh Atid, have come back,” Gabbay said. “The goal is 30 mandates. From now on I plan to travel across the country, reach people who don’t know us, and present them with our plans and agenda.”
What is Avi Gabbay’s agenda? He is such an unknown entity that he is difficult to pin down politically.
He succeeded in immediately annoying the right-wing by saying in his victory speech that the government should not care only for settlers, advocating “a leadership that also cares for Dimona – not only for Amona,” in a reference to the West Bank outpost.
Lacking any security background, Gabbay is almost certain to focus on social issues.
“The main problem is that people today are afraid to start their lives; they are afraid of the high cost of living and high cost of housing. The government has failed to properly address these issues. The welfare system is on the verge of collapse,” he told the Yisrael Hayom newspaper.
One of his first acts as party leader was to join the weekly anti-corruption protest by activists outside the Petah Tikva home of Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit. He called on the leaders of the coalition parties to dissolve the government in response to the numerous investigations against the prime minister and his associates.
“You see the facts and they are clear. The prime minister received hundreds of thousands in gifts. There is no dispute about that. His cousin was dealing with the submarines (purchased for the Navy from Germany) while he was dealing with coalition negotiations. Those two things are enough to make a moral decision. I say here to the coalition faction leaders: make a decision and dissolve the government,” he told the protesters.
Addressing his first meeting of the Zionist Union Knesset faction as party leader, Gabbay noted the ongoing police probes into the prime minister’s possible involvement in a number of corruption scandals. He quoted statements once made by Netanyahu about former prime minister Ehud Olmert when he was being investigated during his premiership for corruption, which ultimately led to his imprisonment.
“A prime minister who is neck-deep in investigations cannot make fateful decisions,” he quoted Netanyahu as saying, arguing that he should now apply the same standards to himself and dismantle the government.
Labor led by Gabbay will be a fighting opposition even though he himself is not a Knesset member and the former head of the party Isaac Herzog, who was defeated in the first-round primary vote, agreed to stay on as Leader of the Opposition in the Knesset. It is unlikely that Gabbay will engage in talks with Netanyahu over the possibility of the Zionist Union joining the coalition – a key factor in Herzog’s downfall.
Gabbay dismissed Yair Lapid’s assertion that he lacked the requisite knowledge and experience to lead the country, saying that Lapid, as a member of the opposition, should concentrate on attacking the government. He also noted that Lapid’s experience as a member of the security cabinet during the last Gaza war was nothing to boast about.
After his primary victory, senior Labor figures were quick to put on a show of party unity, voicing their support for the new leader. Ehud Barak, the party’s most recent prime minister was the most enthusiastic, calling Gabbay’s victory “a revolution in Labor” and said Netanyahu and his allies would be “sweating tonight, with good reason.”
But Labor is known as a party that devours its leaders and the honeymoon will not last long, particularly if the surge in the polls turns out to be a passing phenomenon.
On the diplomatic front, Gabbay said he plans to see whether or not Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is a partner.
“I hope he is because for the time being, he is the only one we can talk to. In any case, I will make considerable efforts to push the diplomatic process forward and advance the two-state solution.”
Likud minister Ofir Akunis was quick to respond, describing Gabbay as “a leftist who supports a Palestinian state on the June 4th, 1967 borders.”
Newcomers entering Israeli politics have done well in the past but most were household names, and often chose politics after a distinguished military career. Very few Israelis had heard of Avi Gabbay a few months ago and he has never served as a Knesset member. Yet, he was able to conquer the Labor party with nonchalance.
His predominantly youthful supporters kept mentioning Emmanuel Macron as a role model during the election night celebrations.
Labor is revitalized and a new energy has jolted the party back to life. But, for Avi Gabbay, the hard work begins now.
Labor party members have voted for change and have taken a leap in the dark. But if Avi Gabbay wants to become Israel’s Macron, he will now have to convince the predominantly right-wing electorate that a man with such little experience is really suited to lead a country facing such significant challenges.
He’s taken Labor by storm. His challenge now is to take Israel by storm.