Eitan Cabel, a Labor Stalwart Who Irked His Party’s Leader, Awaits His Political Demise

The 23-year Knesset veteran is low on the party’s slate, even though he pushed through legislation that made life easier for everyday Israelis

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Eitan Cabel in Jerusalem, January 6, 2019
Eitan Cabel in Jerusalem, January 6, 2019Credit: Oren Ben Hakun
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

In the primary Monday, Labor voters kicked Eitan Cabel, a 23-year Knesset veteran, down to 15th place on his party’s slate, foreshadowing a political downfall. It was a clash with Labor leader Avi Gabbay that led to the demise likely to keep Cabel out of the next Knesset.

If Gabbay forgoes his reserved slots on the ticket, Cabel will move up to 10th place in the run-up to the April 9 election. That would increase his chances of remaining in the Knesset if Labor improves its showing in the opinion polls, which now give it a meager six seats in the 120-seat legislature.

Cabel, an outstanding parliamentarian and a charismatic figure, was harshly criticized because of his public attack on Gabbay during the election campaign. In recent years his status among Labor voters has suffered due to a series of deals and controversial intraparty conflicts.

Although former Defense Minister Amir Peretz has been in the Knesset longer, Cabel, unlike Peretz, never abandoned Labor; in 2013 Peretz went over to Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah party before returning home. Cabel has served for Labor in the Knesset since 1996.

At the height of his career, in the 2013 election campaign, he was elected to third place on the slate. In 2006 he was the minister in charge of the Israel Broadcasting Authority. In 2015 he was elected chairman of the Knesset Economic Affairs Committee; a decade earlier, in 2005, he had been elected secretary general of the party.

Two years later, in 2007, due to the findings of the interim report that exposed the leaders’ failures during the Second Lebanon War, Cabel resigned from Ehud Olmert’s government. During the following term he had already become one of Labor’s “rebels” and voted against coalition discipline to protest Labor leader Ehud Barak’s joining of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.

Tough on Sheldon Adelson

Cabel was one of the leaders of the so-called Israel Hayom bill that sought to require the newspaper’s owner, U.S. casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, to charge for the free newspaper, a longtime supporter of Netanyahu.

Posters of Labor candidates, including Eitan Cabel second from right, for the party primary on February 11, 2019. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Cabel accused Adelson of trying to break the advertising market by charging rock-bottom prices, out of a desire to cause the collapse of print journalism in Israel.

“I don’t want to close it but to prevent the closure of the country’s other newspapers to prevent layoffs and conformity of thought,” Cabel said.

Netanyahu said the bill led to the downfall of his previous government. Due to Cabel’s promotion of the bill, he was questioned by the police about his connections to the daily Yedioth Ahronoth and its publisher, Arnon Mozes, who would have benefited from the legislation.

Meanwhile, Cabel said that as chairman of the Economic Affairs Committee during the current term, he was responsible for the approval of 170 laws.

Gabbay helped get Cabel on such a low slot on the Labor ticket. Cabel is considered the only Laborite who dared oppose the chairman openly during the election campaign, and who wasn’t afraid to express his criticism of Gabbay with the media and party activists.

The height of the conflict came at the party convention about a month ago, when Cabel said he had taken a lie-detector test to prove that Gabbay had warned that he would “bring down the house” on Labor MKs who refused to accept his authority.

As part of the confrontation, last month Gabbay released a video showing that Cabel had harshly attacked not only him but all of Labor’s leaders. Referring to previous Labor chiefs, he called Isaac Herzog “a manipulator and a liar” and Shelly Yacimovich “a resounding failure,” while claiming that Ehud Barak had “lied to the Jewish people.”

In the clip, Cabel was portrayed as a subversive. “Cabel, if you stop undermining everyone, maybe we’ll manage to get somewhere” was the final comment. The message apparently filtered down: In every living-room meeting he attended in recent months, he heard harsh criticism.

On Friday, a member of Kibbutz Tzuba scolded him: “The attack against Gabbay doesn’t seem to me like a smart move. You’re not supposed to show the public the party’s negative aspects on the eve of an election.”

Cabel replied with his signature pathos: “If I hadn’t said anything, after the election you’d have asked me, ‘Where were you? How did you remain silent?’”

The tobacco law that was approved about two months ago was one of Cabel’s crowning achievements. The law prohibits the advertising, sale and promotion of tobacco and e-cigarettes except in the print media. In addition, as chairman of the Economic Affairs Committee, Cabel led a long series of socioeconomic laws to approval.

Tough on banks and call centers

Cabel also initiated a law letting the wives of army reservists miss an hour of work a day to take care of the children remaining at home. He also ushered through a law that conditions the closing of a bank branch on the approval of Israel’s banks supervisor; also, the bank would have to provide an explanation. He also pushed through a law that requires a real-live human to reply to calls to customer service centers.

In the past term, Cabel is remembered for the secret recording revealing that, despite his denials, he cut a deal with Yacimovich to support her in her bid to head the Histadrut labor federation. In return she would support him to head the Labor Party.

“I want to go together with Shelly to the Histadrut; Shelly is committed to supporting me for the party leadership,” a supporter in the party quoted Cabel as saying. “This is my opportunity to achieve my dream; I need your help on this matter.”

The two moves proved unsuccessful, but the political friendship with Yacimovich, which developed after a long period of hostility, remains. Despite Gabbay’s opposition, Yacimovich called on Labor voters to support Cabel, while Cabel refused to attack Yacimovich for her support for Gabbay’s candidacy.

“I have no regrets about what I did, and in hindsight I would do everything the same way,” Cabel wrote on Twitter on Monday night after the primary results came in. “I’m ending this day with my head held high, and I thank everyone who had faith in me.”

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