The new Bernie Sanders?

Democratic US presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders waves at the start of the Democratic U.S. presidential candidates' debate in Flint, Michigan, March 6, 2016 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Democratic US presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders waves at the start of the Democratic U.S. presidential candidates' debate in Flint, Michigan, March 6, 2016
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In the primary election just completed, Labor Party members chose between two men – Avi Gabbay and Amir Peretz – who had abandoned previous parties they belonged to, had reinvented themselves rhetorically if not actually, and in American parlance would have been called carpetbaggers.
Of course both men told us, again and again, whatever their public relations advisers told them to say. That is the way election campaigns are run nowadays. Therefore, such promises were not credible to many people. In those circumstances, what probably put the younger carpetbagger over the top was that Gabbay seemed to be someone new to public life (which is not true because he had already been a government minister representing a right-wing party that scorns Labor Zionism), whereas Peretz seemed like a man of vast political experience (which was true but, by definition, included years of equivocating, backstabbing and zig-zagging).
On that difference between the two there hangs a tale about where the party’s leaders stood, which was mainly with Peretz. News reports after the main event do not all agree on exactly who said what and when, but it seems that 13 or 14 Labor MKs endorsed Peretz and five or six endorsed Gabbay. This means that, in plain terms, a substantial majority of the most powerful people in the Labor Party endorsed a politician who promised not to rock the boat.
Those same people did not seem to care that they were repeating the mistake of most Democratic Party bosses and insiders who endorsed Hillary Clinton in 2016 rather than rally around the unconventional figure and ideas of Bernie Sanders, who offered a bold vision of how to deal with creative destruction, globalization, automation, financialization, digitalization, social fragmentation and the winner-take-all society.
On this score, early in June of 2016, when Sanders might still have won the Democratic Party nomination for president, 171 Democratic congressmen had endorsed Clinton while Sanders was endorsed by only nine. Furthermore, Clinton was supported by 40 Democratic senators while Sanders was supported by only two, including himself; Clinton was backed by 17 governors while no governor backed Sanders; and Clinton was recommended by 279 members of the Democratic National Committee while only 31 recommended Sanders. Of “super delegates” to the Democratic nominating convention to be held in July, Clinton led in endorsements by 520 to 43.
In the end, of course, while Clinton was supported across the board by well-known politicians (and journalists) committed to doing, more or less, nothing new, she went on – shockingly – to lose the election to Donald Trump.
In a way, then, we may regard Avi Gabbay 1) as unbeholden to Labor Party machers and 2) as taking a first step toward leading a populist revolt in Israel. That is, perhaps he is the man who will finally implement the two-state solution, strengthen development towns, inspire a lively civic society and make cottage cheese and housing affordable inside the Green Line.
But does that mean Gabbay will defeat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and/or the Likud in the next Knesset election? Not necessarily, because many Israeli voters are not populist and are not outraged by present public circumstances. Instead, many of us – probably a majority – are thoroughly satisfied with the politics of nothing new, the politics of no change concerning Palestinians and their land, the politics of privatization and capitalist markets and the politics of religious discrimination and orthodoxy.
Will any of these voters cross over from Right to Left in Israel’s political spectrum next time around? That is Gabbay’s real challenge, regardless of whether or not some of Yair Lapid’s enthusiasts, already in the center- left camp, will abandon Lapid’s Yesh Atid to support the Laborite from, lately, Bezek and Kulanu.
The writer is a professor of political science and American studies at the Hebrew University. His most recent book, Politics Without Stories: The Liberal Predicament, was published in 2016 by Cambridge University Press.