He has only been a member of the Israeli Labor party for seven months, but last week Avi Gabbay was elected its leader. Jennifer Gerber explains his meteoric rise on the centre-left
Avi Gabbay, a political outsider, was elected leader of the Israeli Labor party on Monday. His upset victory – in the second round of the primary election, Gabbay convincingly defeated Amir Peretz, a one-time party leader and cabinet minister – brought immediate comparisons with the rise of Emmanuel Macron in France.
Once Israel’s dominant political force, Labor has failed to win a general election since Ehud Barak’s victory in 1999. It has churned through nine leaders since Barak’s defeat in 2001. Labor’s main opponent, Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, has had just two in the same period.
Gabbay’s victory represents both a leap in the dark but also the tantalising prospect of bringing an end to the Netanyahu era. Early indications suggest that Labor’s gamble on a man who has never been a member of the Knesset and only joined the party he now leads seven months ago may well pay off. Two polls last Tuesday showed Labor regaining lost ground. In recent months, the party has sunk below the centrist Yesh Atid party in the polls. Some have shown it retaining only half of the 24 seats it secured in the 2015 general election. Surveys for Channel 2 and Channel 10 show Likud still out in front with 25 and 30 seats respectively. Labor is placed on 20 seats in the former poll and 24 in the latter. However, both surveys showed Netanyahu outperforming Gabbay on the question of whom Israelis wished to see as their prime minister.
Gabbay’s victory last Monday evening followed incumbent chair Isaac Herzog’s defeat in the first round of voting the week before. In sharp contrast to the victor, his opponent this week, Amir Peretz, had decades of political experience. First elected mayor of Sderot in 1983, he is the longest serving member of the Knesset and a labour movement insider who once headed the Histadrut trade union. Peretz led Labor between 2005 and 2009, serving as deputy prime minister and minister of defence when the party entered Ehud Olmert’s Kadima-led government in 2006. Most of the Labor establishment had rallied around him in run-up to last week’s vote. Despite trailing him in the first round, Gabbay polled 52.4 per cent to Peretz’s 47.6 per cent on Monday.
Gabbay began his career in the finance ministry’s budget department. He then went to work for the telecommunications giant, Bezeq, rising through the ranks to become its director general and make his fortune. After leaving Bezeq in 2013, he helped Moshe Kahlon found the centre-right Kulanu party in 2014. When it entered Netanyahu’s government after the 2015 elections, Kahlon ensured the appointment of his ally as environmental protection minister. Just over a year later, however, Gabbay quit the government after Netanyahu opted to bring Avigdor Liberman’s rightwing Yisrael Beiteinu party into the ruling coalition. Gabbay accused the prime minister of leading Israel down the path to destruction. Later defecting to Labor, Gabbay vowed to win the leadership in this summer’s primaries.
Despite a background on the right – during the primaries, he conceded he had only supported Labor during Yitzhak Rabin’s premiership – Gabbay is hardly out-of-step ideologically with the party he now leads. As he suggested on Tuesday: ‘My positions are the positions of the Labor party – two states for two peoples, clear social economic and social democratic policies and protecting the High Court of Justice.’ While describing Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas as a ‘partner’ for peace, he also pledged not to allow the division of Jerusalem in any future settlement. He also signalled a centre-left stance on social policies, suggesting that the ‘welfare state is not a bad word’ and vowing: ‘we must create sources of income for the weak segments of the population and improve the public system that gives services to citizens’.
Like Peretz, Gabbay is of Sephardic descent, offering Labor the opportunity to reach out to Mizrahi voters who have long regarded the party, and its historic association with an Ashkenazai ‘elite’, with suspicion. Analysts suggest that he should also play up his centrist credentials. Abraham Diskin, a political science professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, suggested he should draw on the lesson of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion: ‘He tried to rule from the centre and leave leftist parties out of his government. One of Labor’s biggest problems is that it has forgotten this lesson.’
Gabbay used his first day in the Labor leadership to set two bold political goals: to double the party’s membership to 100,000 and win 30 seats – enough to displace Netanyahu at the general election scheduled in 2019. His first challenge – to choose a new leader of the opposition – was surmounted painlessly. Not holding a seat in the Knesset, Gabbay is ineligible for the role and his nominee will need to win the backing of half of the 54 opposition MKs. Last week, Gabbay suggested he would ask Herzog to remain in the post until the next general election. He repeated his offer after his victory, despite the former Labor leader endorsing Peretz and indicating he wished to step down immediately. Yesterday, Herzog met with Gabbay and announced that, ‘out of a real desire that you succeed’, he would stay on. Although not the leader of the opposition, Gabbay will still have the right to address Labor’s weekly meeting of MKs.
Gabbay’s victory also appears to assure the continuation of Labor’s alliance with former foreign minister Tzipi Livni’s liberal Hatnua party. The formation of the Zionist Union prior to the 2015 election helped Labor to its best performance at the polls since Barak’s victory in 1999. Following Gabbay’s win, a spokesperson for Livni said the new Labor leader was now ‘in principle’ the head of the Zionist Union, while suggesting a new deal would need to be agreed. Livni, however, indicated her support. ‘Now, after the Labor party finished its internal democratic processes,’ she said, ‘we must turn together to the public and expand our ranks to a large bloc’ in order to oust Netanyahu.
Gabbay’s declaration in his victory speech that ‘the journey for regime change has begun’ provoked excitement in many parts of the Israeli media. Haaretz columnist Yossi Verter suggested: ‘Gabbay’s [win] has the potential – though no certainty – of reshuffling the deck of the centre-left camp, undermining the consensus that has reigned here for the last two years and sending shockwaves through the entire political system.’
Others attributed his victory to the same factors which saw Macron – another wealthy outsider who shook the political establishment with a message of hope and national unity which especially resonated with the young – elected president of France two months ago. In Yedioth, Nahum Barnea wrote: ‘That same disgust for the political system, for veteran politicians who run it, the same thirst for something new, for something less well-worn, less familiar, pushed Avi Gabbay to the head of Labor. Gabbay is the new Macron. His election shows the mood of the voters no less than it shows about him. Netanyahu does not need to fear Gabbay but rather the disgust with the status quo among large and growing parts of the public.’
Older, and, for British readers, more familiar comparisons were also made. Reminding readers that in 1994, Labour was also a ‘party of losers with very little hope’, the Jerusalem Post’s Gil Hoffman suggested Tony Blair’s creation of New Labour as a model Gabbay should seek to emulate. Crucially, in electing Gabbay, Labor supporters have shown the same determination to end their party’s losing streak and return to power which won Blair the leadership 23 years ago next week.
Jennifer Gerber is director of Labour Friends of Israel. She tweets at @JenGerber79