Opinion

Israel Got Its Macron, but It Doesn’t Have France’s Rage

Like his French counterpart, the new Labor leader Avi Gabbay promises change, but there’s no evidence Israelis want any

Avi Gabbay and Emmanuel Macron.
Jean-Christophe Bott/ AP, Moti Milrod

He’s being compared to Emmanuel Macron, Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump – a figure who arises seemingly out of nowhere and promises to shake up the establishment. Suddenly he is the Great White Hope of the masses who are angry and frustrated with their leaders.

The newly elected Labor Party leader, Avi Gabbay, not only fits the mold, he could be Macron’s twin brother in terms of their journey to the top.

Both he and the French leader were brilliant students who made careers in government service, jumped into business, and then jumped into politics.

In Macron’s case, he left the Socialist Party and cabinet to form his own party and ride to a thumping electoral victory. In Gabbay’s case he bolted the Kulanu Party and cabinet to join Labor, and quickly seized control of it after defeating an array of veteran politicians.

'Tomorrow we cravenly creep'

Actually, both Macron and Gabbay are pure establishment figures. But people perceive them as outsiders who will shake things up.

Now Gabbay has his eyes on nothing less than staging the same regime change Macron has done. "Tomorrow the election campaign to replace the government in Israel begins,” he declared in his victory speech.

Okay, that’s the usual stuff of newly elected party chieftains. Who wants to hear that tomorrow we begin the campaign to join the government as a junior partner and get a couple of second-string ministries?

But with politics in Europe and America being the way they are nowadays, Gabbay has cause to hope. In an age of political gyrations that have created Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron and President Donald Trump, Prime Minister Avi Gabbay doesn’t sound quite so fantastic.

The problem is that however much Gabbay resembles Macron, Israel doesn’t resemble France.

Piqued in Paris

French voters are angry, and it’s no wonder. They suffered through a severe economic downturn nearly a decade ago and the economy has still not fully recovered. Unemployment is still in the double digits and youth unemployment higher still. Economic growth over the last two decades has been among the lowest in the developed world.

Moreover, France has been hit with a wave of terror attacks, and many French resent the immigrants and refugees in their presence.

France’s generous welfare system, its big state sector and its strict labor laws – the kind of things many Israelis on the left so admire as an antidote the piggish capitalism – haven’t solved these problems. In many cases, it made them worse.

Israeli voters, on the other hand, aren’t angry. The media may rail against tycoons, Netanyahu’s behavior, soaring home prices, the high cost of living, religious coercion and a long list of other litanies, but these come under the category of ordinary bellyaching. They aren’t existential grievances.

Students protest Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett's planned academic ethics code at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, June 14, 2017.
Olivier Fitoussi

The day Labor voters were casting their ballots for Gabbay, the Bank of Israel raised its economic growth forecast for this year to 3.4% from 2.8%. Unemployment is so low that pockets of labor shortages are developing.

The fact that Netanyahu keeps being returned to office is partly due to the absence of serious contenders, but it is mainly because under Netanyahu and his immediate predecessors, Israel has done well for itself. Not just in the economy: the Palestinians are quiescent, Israel’s enemies in the Arab world are in disarray and India is our new best friend. Israelis are travelling abroad, spending money in cafes and driving new cars. Even the lowest income groups are enjoying the trickle-down effect.

So what is Gabbay going to run against?

He has some wishy-washy things to say about the Palestinians, but these days it’s a non-issue. On issues like public transportation and civil marriage, he offers some mildly progressive ideas, but nothing revolutionary. There issome "Netanyahu fatigue" after eight consecutive years of Bibi and Sara, but the polls don’t show it. One taken last week by the public broadcaster Kan showed Bibi was the preferred choice for prime minister for 29% of those asked to Gabbay’s 11%.

On the economy, Gabbay hopes to convince Israelis that things aren’t as good as they seem. “When you look at the macro, you see a very strong economy but very weak people. We have an insane contradiction between these two things,” he told Davar Rishon in an interview last week.

His solution is a surprisingly “social” economic program that includes more spending for health and public transportation, and a $7 billion plan to build homes at government expense. He vows not to cut a single civil service job but to make government more efficient. He talks about raising taxes and developing social welfare programs based on needs first then worrying about how to pay for it.

Many of his ideas are reasonable. But reasonableness isn't going to get voters to reject business as usual and loft him into the top job. Only anger can do that. It’s a pity, but Gabbay is a Macron without a France.