Analysis

As Israel's Labor Hemorrhages Voters, Party Leader Rethinks His Bad Boy Antics

Labor leader Avi Gabbay is realizing his so-called authenticity might be backfiring

Illustration: Avi Gabbay looks sad as he walks in the rain.
Amos Biderman

Intraparty WhatsApp groups are an effective, albeit not scientific, litmus test for determining the mood and the wishes of the party faithful. The messaging is intensive, frenetic, emotionally fraught and generally unfiltered. It’s easy for MKs to get hooked on it; everyone finds what he’s looking for.

Piss off the left, seduce the right: Avi Gabbay wants to replace Netanyahu, and claims he's found the formula | Analysis

In the Labor Party in recent weeks a disturbing phenomenon has surfaced, which has spread among various supporters’ groups. People are jumping ship from these groups, and in no small numbers – two, three and even sometimes five a day and dozens every week leaving the party. It’s not natural fallout, it’s the escape from Alcatraz.

The party’s list of registered members is open for inspection by all of the party’s MKs, and someone took the trouble to check the numbers. Last July 4, when the party held an election for its leadership, Labor had 58,800 registered members. In the first month or so after Avi Gabbay won the position, after a runoff election on July 10, about 4,600 people joined the party. This week, the number of registered members stood at 57,200.

In other words, 6,200 left, gone with the wind, or maybe following the torch [the Hebrew word for “torch” is lapid]. Most did in fact switch to MK Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, which is consolidating its position as leader of the pack; others joined the resurgent Meretz party.

These are very bad numbers for the new leader, and they are also in keeping with recent public opinion polls, which show Zionist Union – an amalgam of Labor and MK Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah – taking a battering almost weekly. From a peak of an estimated 22-23 Knesset seats in the heady, optimistic days following Gabbay’s election, Zionist Union’s support is now down to a level of between 12 and 16 seats, depending on which poll you check. The 24 seats won about three years ago by MK Isaac Herzog, Labor’s leader at the time, now look like a pipe dream.

The movement of Knesset seats, as said, is mostly in the direction of Yesh Atid. Zionist Union is now concerned that its voters who defected to Yesh Atid during the Herzog era and returned when Gabby was elected – only to leave again – will not come home this time. They gave their party a chance, were disappointed, and now it’s “Shalom, haver.”

After 190 days of the Gabbay era, an interim summary can be drawn up: The feeling of renewal and revamping that accompanied the election of the outsider, and revivified the party, has disappeared like droplets released by a dog shaking its fur after a rainstorm.

Dejection and confusion have returned to Labor. The gloominess of “Where are we headed?” and “What do we do with Gabbay?” is sensed in every conversation with relevant people in the party. Herzog, who experienced both the flow and the ebb, was heard saying to a confidant, “There are moments when I ask myself why they kicked me out.”

People aren’t yet talking about dumping Gabbay. It’s still early and premature for that, even in the wasps’ nest that calls itself Labor. But the election is far in the future.

Labor leader Avi Gabbay.
\ Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Gabbay’s controversial policy-related declarations have done their damage. These include his expressed opposition to the evacuation of isolated settlements; his preference for a unified Jerusalem over a peace treaty; his support for the “infiltrators law” (referring to deportation of asylum seekers from countries in Africa); his wisecrack that “the left has forgotten what it is to be Jewish,” and – the icing on the cake – his assertion that he would agree to serve as Lapid’s No. 2 if the latter was able to form a government. All these constitute a critical mass of incidents that even his supporters describe as serial verbal suicide attacks.

Lapid, too, has prattled something to the effect that “Jerusalem takes priority over peace,” but with no untoward consequences. Like Gabbay, his thrust is consistently rightward – but we’re used to that. And Lapid, as opposed to Labor’s chief, displays exemplary political comportment, meticulous discipline on the campaign trail, and stinginess when it comes to giving speeches and interviews. He has tremendously enhanced his ability to say nothing in a way that does not sound vacuous. And he will never say that he would agree to be No. 2 to his rival in the battle for the leadership of the center-left.

The main issues on the agenda, concerning the campaign against corruption and the growing opposition to religious coercion – two issues with which he’s identified – only play into Lapid’s hands. To say that Gabbay is frustrated by this would be a gross understatement.

“I objected to the natural gas deal as a cabinet minister, I left the government because of Avigdor Lieberman’s appointment as defense minister, and I’m not getting credit for the fight against corruption. Lapid does, even though he’s a good friend of Lieberman’s and won’t say a nasty word about him,” Gabbay complains to interlocutors.

There’s also the question of physical presence in the Knesset. Lapid put on a good show in the House during the voting on the so-called police “recommendations law” and the legislation barring supermarkets from opening on Shabbat, issues that drew intense media coverage. Gabbay is not an MK. His absence from the parliamentary fight club, which is enjoying high ratings of late, is hurting him.

During the primaries campaign, when his opponents argued that the fact that Gabbay is not an MK would be an obstacle if he were elected Labor’s leader, he replied that this was insignificant, that the Knesset isn’t all that important. Today, though, he admits that it’s a problem. When the opposition is praised for putting up a good fight, he’s not around to reap the rewards.

For this depressing situation he’s paying a double price. First, anyone who isn’t there doesn’t exist. Second, Lapid has happily seized the position of leader of the opposition, even though, formally, it belongs to Herzog. Until Gabbay’s election as Labor chief last July and the start of the Knesset’s winter session in October, Lapid used to grope his way to the plenum with the aid of a navigation device. Now, he’s about as omnipresent in the plenum as the portrait of Herzl over the dais.

Unknown soldier

Avi Gabbay’s American pollster, Stephan Miller, recently conducted a lengthy, in-depth survey for him, whose findings constituted a lengthy tome. There too, Zionist Union came out with what would amount to 16-17 seats if elections were held now.

The finding that stunned Gabbay most came under the rubric of “name recognition.” Fully 17 percent of Zionist Union voters who were polled said that they didn’t know his name, when asked to identify him. Among the general public, the situation is even worse: 27 percent told the telephone interviewers they didn’t know who this Avi Gabbay guy was.

Bizarre. In the past six months Gabbay has made many public appearances, given no few interviews, has sparked various scandals and in general behaved like a bad boy – yet he’s still unknown to almost one-fifth of his electorate. Most of those questioned by MIller who said that Gabbay was not known to them were young people who serve in the army or are about to be drafted. In short, first-time voters.

Gabbay’s conclusion: Anyone who isn’t a consumer of the mainstream media, doesn’t watch the TV news and current events shows, and doesn’t read newspapers, doesn’t know who the Labor Party chairman or Zionist Union leader is. Which is why, two weeks ago, Gabbay appeared on the trashy, Friday-night interview show “Ophira and Bercovic,” on Channel 12: to broaden his public exposure.

His relations with Zionist Union MKs and Labor activists can generally be summed up by the word “arrogance,” with a dash of “impatience” and a sprinkling of “patronizing.” Few of them get a good word from him. One of those who does is MK Itzik Shmuli, who was actually a leading supporter of MK Amir Peretz for Labor’s leadership last year. “Be Shmulis,” Gabbay urged his party’s delegates two weeks ago, in appreciation for the young MK’s work on social-welfare issues.

Many Labor and Zionist Union MKs whom I’ve spoken with think, like Gabbay, that their party and Knesset faction need to “centrify”: move away from the dangerous fringes of the left, differentiate themselves from Meretz and broadcast a message that the public can connect to easily.

Gabbay’s goal is correct, they say; his road there is catastrophic. By shooting off your mouth you don’t wage a campaign for the premiership or decide who will win the leadership of the camp, which may in any event already have been decided. What worked for him in the primary – nonchalant charm, straight talk, reliance on intuition – isn’t appropriate for the present battlefield.

Avi Gabbay and Tzipi Livni.
Olivier Fitoussi

The way he is running things is a subject of withering criticism, both among Zionist Union MKs and in Labor as a whole. A participant in a recent parlor meeting with Gabbay told him, “We were happy on the night you were elected, but now we have no idea what you want.”

Herzog had a salient, longtime political-diplomatic agenda. His predecessor, Shelly Yacimovich, has been fighting the social-welfare battle all her adult life. The party showed them both the door. Gabbay comes across as a leader without an agenda, apart from his persistently reiterated declaration: I will win 30 seats and I will be prime minister. That sounded nice at the beginning, but now it just comes across as pretentious

Meanwhile, his Zionist Union co-leader, MK Livni, is suffering. Not a day goes by that she doesn’t bemoan the loss of Herzog as party leader. She and Herzog could sit for hours discussing ideology and vision, negotiations, peace-schmeace, “content” (a favorite word of Livni’s) and so forth. To talk to Gabbay about any of that is like trying to climb a wall of ice.

The tension in their relations has abated a bit lately, after it dawned on him that on his own and with Labor alone, he’ll get nowhere. Still, the two politicians seem to be on parallel tracks, and it’s hard to see the tracks converging.

Livni revealed the palpitations her political partner is causing her this week at a talk at Tel Aviv University. “I admit,” she said, stating the obvious, “that some of my friends in the opposition are not dealing [with the peace issue] because it’s not the bon ton today, it’s not politically rewarding and not everyone is ready to place the real issues on the table and engage in a struggle over two completely different visions for Israel.”

“Not everyone” is, of course, Yair Lapid, but also Gabbay. Livni hasn’t yet abandoned her dream of recreating Zionist Union, making it bigger and stronger, and of holding a new leadership primary with the participation of Gabbay, maybe herself, maybe Ehud Barak, maybe former Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi (although thinking in the various parties today is that he and politics have gone their separate ways), maybe another former chief of staff, Benny Gantz. Whoever wants to jump headfirst into the mire.

Non-fatal attraction

Speaking of Gantz, the new wildcard in the center-left deck: Three weeks ago, this column reported that he was engaged in a series of intense talks with Yair Lapid about possibly joining Yesh Atid. Lapid is promising him heaven and earth: No. 2, the job of defense minister or any other cabinet post he may fancy.

But no less intense or less frequent are the talks Gantz is holding with Gabbay and Herzog, who is taking part in the struggle to bring the former IDF chief into Labor. And the promises he’s getting from them are just as far-reaching. Gabbay, like Lapid, looked in the Miller at the electoral benefits that could be derived from the participation of the former army chief, and discovered that he would add a stunning nine to 10 Knesset seats, which would give the party 27 seats.

Gabbay showed Gantz these numbers in their last meeting. The former chief of staff was of course flattered. He’s used to that.

Lapid, Gabbay told Gantz, has no chance of forming a government even if he gets 27 seats, but we at Labor definitely do. The Haredim won’t join him, but they will join me. They say they will.

Both parties believe that Gantz will make a decision only after the Knesset is dissolved and a new election is declared. Not a minute before. Now the only question is with whom: Lapid or Gabbay. In the end, Labor believes, Gantz will join them. He’s a Mapainik (referring to Labor’s predecessor) from home, he feels more comfortable there, he has higher regard for Gabbay, a self-made man who made a lot of money and managed a corporation with tens of thousands of employees, than for his rival – a former media personality who passed briefly through the Finance Ministry and left no trace. Generals, say people close to Gabbay, prefer to be in the company of successful businessmen who have done something in life.

Split personality

Of late – in the past three weeks, according to sources in Zionist Union – Gabbay has begun to internalize the fact that a change is needed. He’s stopped shooting from the hip. His public statements are more measured. He’s working more methodically.

In meetings Gabbay has held recently, his interlocutors have heard traces of a more sober-eyed approach, as well as contrition and coming to terms. He regrets the remark about the left forgetting “what it is to be Jewish.” That was “a major mistake,” he says. “The diagnosis was correct, its articulation wasn’t. I hurt our people badly and that’s not why I came here – to hurt our people.”

I say what I think, he explains to those who urge him to be more careful with his words, adding, “I am not a message machine. People are looking for authenticity, they want to hear substantive talk, not like robots. But yes, I have to be more careful.”

The criticism, small samples of which have been quoted here, is nothing new for him. Yet, he finds it difficult to believe that its sources are above-board or constructive, which is how people present it.

All in all, your situation is excellent, someone who took part in another meeting told him. You’ve been party leader for half a year, there’s no intifada, no knifings, Amir Peretz has hunkered down, Herzog defends you at every opportunity, Yacimovich goes out of her way for you and the Labor convention approved all the constitutional amendments you requested.

Gabbay shook his head. “No, no,” he said. “Absolutely not. There are people in the party who have never accepted that I was elected. Even when we had polls showing [support equivalent to] 23, 24 seats, they carped and complained. People like to grumble. But today,” he admits, “when we’ve fallen in the polls, certainly people are upset and apprehensive. I’m upset, too.”

He went on: “Our MKs don’t like the system of guaranteeing places on the slate of Knesset candidates. [The convention authorized Gabbay to guarantee two slots for candidates of his choosing in the first group of 10, and two more in the second group of 10.] They’re letting off steam. And there are also those who are looking for a fight from the outside.”

Gabbay’s close circle points to former MK Erel Margalit, who lost to him in the primary, following which he left political life, and returned to business. Margalit, they say, is working hard against Gabbay. He’s employing people from the party, and operating via the social networks.

“I wish Gabbay a lot of success,” says Margalit in response. “I suggest that he regard my work in advancing the Negev and the Galilee as an opportunity and not as a threat. Pushing Israeli innovation and creation of jobs – that what should occupy all of us.”

Naturally, Gabbay is constantly asked about Lapid, who has effectively seized the slot of leader of the opposition. “I brought an MK into the House when I was elected,” Gabbay says bitterly, referring to Lapid’s new habit of participating in Knesset debates. True, he admits, Lapid is now riding high, because he takes the floor and lambastes Likud MK David Amsalem, who is one of the principal sponsors of the offensive legislation that is re-energizing the opposition. But this is temporary – only as long as the Knesset is in session.

“In the three months leading up to an election, the Knesset is dissolved. We will all be equal, and the agenda could change, too. When the issues are religious coercion and governmental corruption, Lapid profits. When the dialogue changes – and it will change – he will lose supporters,” Gabbay predicted.

Which agenda will help you, Gabbay was asked. “When all is said and done,” he responded, “people will vote for personality.”