The venerable party, associated with some of the country’s most iconic leaders, has a new standard bearer. He is new to politics, having spent his career making his name and fortune as a businessman. Not only is he new to politics, he is new to his own party, having only just registered as a member and admitting to voting for candidates of the other heavyweight party in the past. He has vowed to upend the establishment and change the status quo, and his nomination to lead the party is seen as a repudiation of its past, its elites, and its recent run of electoral failures.
So does this mean that new Labor Party chief Avi Gabbay, who defeated Amir Peretz in the Labor runoff yesterday, is Israel’s answer to Donald Trump? Not quite, despite the parallels of a businessman outsider defeating a slate of career politicians to take over a party with which he has no history. As my colleague Eli Kowaz noted last week, Gabbay was viewed as the “new” candidate, but much of this was due to his efforts to expand the party, as opposed to Trump’s successful strategy of playing upon the fears and resentments of voters who profiled as more traditionally Republican. Furthermore, Gabbay is not a flamethrower or provocative attention seeker (that role in the Labor leadership race was played by Erel Margalit). Nevertheless, Gabbay has the potential to be a transformative Labor leader, and while it is difficult to see him dethroning Prime Minister Netanyahu in the next election, for a variety of reasons he is well-placed to halt Labor’s slide to near-irrelevance in recent public opinion polls.
For starters, Gabbay is Mizrahi (as was Peretz), born to Moroccan immigrant parents. It is impossible to overstate how significant it is that Labor, the heir to Israel’s founding Mapai, just chose between two candidates of non-European descent. Until Menachem Begin’s 1977 victory, Israel was essentially a one-party state, and that party represented the Ashkenazi, socialist, secular, Labor Zionism elite. Begin’s election did many things, including ushering in four decades of rightwing dominance, but one of the most critical was empowering Mizrahi Jews and giving them a voice. Begin was not Mizrahi, but he openly represented a Mizrahi constituency, and much like the FDR presidency cemented Jews as one of the most reliable Democratic constituencies, Begin did the same for Mizrahim and Likud. Gabbay is not the first Mizrahi Labor leader, but he has some serious Mizrahi street cred, having founded Kulanu with Moshe Kahlon before the last elections. If the polling is accurate, he is going to siphon off votes from Likud, in no small part due to his background.
Gabbay also represents a break from Labor’s ideological past in a way that Peretz did not. Unlike Peretz, who led Israel’s Histadrut labor union, Gabbay was a telecom executive. He is known for advocating populist economic policies during his brief time in politics, but he is decidedly not from the old Labor economic tradition. This too creates the potential for Labor to expand its pool of supporters, and to demonstrate that it understands the way in which it must craft economic policies that relate to the new economy. Where Gabbay will lead Labor in this regard remains to be seen, but similar to the way Tony Blair’s election in the United Kingdom signaled a break from the British Labour’s past, Gabbay does not sound like a vestige of the past.
Perhaps more importantly than his background though, Gabbay has a recent history with Netanyahu that suggests he is eager to draw a contrast, and that more than anything will ensure Labor’s relevance in voters’ eyes. Gabbay served as Netanyahu’s environmental protection minister in this government before resigning in protest over Avigdor Lieberman’s appointment as defense minister, scathingly blasting the coalition on his way out and creating a rift with Netanyahu (along with a rift between Gabbay and Kahlon, his erstwhile Kulanu partner). Gabbay then went and joined Labor, and now he suddenly finds himself as one of Netanyahu’s most prominent rivals. Unlike Buji Herzog, who seemed to always be on the verge of joining with Netanyahu and forming a unity government, Gabbay is extremely unlikely to carry out a similar flirtation. He has publicly burned his bridge with Netanyahu, benefited from it politically, and rode a wave of support within Labor from some of the party MKs who take the most confrontational tack toward the prime minister. If there is a lesson from Yair Lapid’s rapid rise in the polls, it is that drawing a bright and shining policy contrast with Netanyahu may not be as important as drawing a contrast with Netanyahu the politician. If Gabbay is smart, he will make sure that the Israeli public views him as a roadblock for Netanyahu rather than as a Netanyahu enabler. That Gabbay is not actually a Knesset member, and can thus lob rhetorical shots at Netanyahu from the outside without having to take responsibility for actual Knesset votes, will only work to his benefit in this regard.
Had Peretz beat Gabbay yesterday, he would have successfully mobilized what remains of the left in a way that Gabbay will not, but therein lies both Peretz’s greatest strength and his greatest weakness. Israel is a center-right country, and the key to Labor returning to a position of power isn’t boosting its traditional turnout, but growing its base of support. Gabbay has the potential to capture new non-traditional Labor voters, and that is what makes his victory tantalizing to those who want to see Labor challenge Likud. Lapid figured out awhile ago that Netanyahu is a transformative politician – not one of Israel’s most consequential leaders, but undoubtedly the most consequential politician the country’s history – because he has ushered in an Americanization of Israeli politics by making it personality driven rather than policy driven. Netanyahu built a reputation as a hawk despite being the most reluctant prime minister in Israel’s history to use force (which is not meant to be demeaning or a negative value judgment, but a simple fact); a reputation as a champion of settlers and settlements despite building in the West Bank at a slower rate than his three predecessors. Lapid has chipped away not so much at the specifics of Netanyahu’s policies, but at Netanyahu’s abilities as a leader. Gabbay’s background and his recent willingness to confront Netanyahu in a real and tangible way suggest that he will employ the same formula.
The reason that the biggest rivalry in Israeli politics right now is between Netanyahu and Naftali Bennett, who hail from the same political camp, is because both men know that the right has captured a majority of Israelis and they are fighting over the rightwing vote share. They are not trying to draw more Israelis to support their bloc because they haven’t had to. Gabbay has the potential to upend this state of affairs by making the rightwing pie smaller. It doesn’t mean that he will be the next prime minister, or ever the prime minister. It does, however, mean that Labor may see itself back in a center-left coalition before too long.