Israel’s Labor Party Gives Unprecedented Powers to New Leader Avi Gabbay

Left-wing party gives recently-elected leader full administrative responsibility for the party and authority to appoint four candidates to Knesset slate

Israeli Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay, September 14, 2017.
Ilan Assayag

The conference of the Labor Party voted Thursday evening to amend the party constitution to confer powers on its new chairman, Avi Gabbay, that had never been granted his predecessors.

“I understood that our home needed change and renewal, change that will permit us to again lead the country,” Gabbay told the gathering in an implied reference to Labor’s failure to hold the Prime Minister’s Office since Ehud Barak was voted out in 2001.

The changes to the constitution, which were proposed by Gabbay, who was elected party leader in July, include full administrative responsibility for the party, including the financial powers that up to now had been held by Secretary General Eran Hermoni. They also give the party chairman the power to personally choose four candidates on the party’s Knesset slate. The party is represented in the Knesset on a joint slate, Zionist Union, with its partner Hatnuah headed by Tzipi Livni.

Gabbay has insisted that without responsibility for financial matters, he would be incapable of establishing an effective party organization that could beat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud in the next Knesset election.

Amir Peretz, a former party chairman whom Gabbay beat in the primaries this year, was critical of the changes to the party constitution that Gabbay has been seeking, including personal appointments to the Knesset slate. Referring to two former Israel Defense Forces chiefs of staff, Peretz added: “If you bring in Gabi Ashkenazi and Benny Gantz, I would vote with my hands and feet, but blindly reserving [slots on the slate] is unacceptable.”

In a jab at Barak, whom he referred to as “adviser of tweets,” Peretz said, “I know such an adviser, who was party chairman. I got 19 [Knesset] seats and he got 13 seats.”

Hermoni expressed reservations of his own at the conference, saying, “This party is built from the bottom up, with branches and activists. It’s very hard for me to see that they want to transfer powers from the secretary general to the chairman,” he said. “The secretary general is the gatekeeper of democracy in the party. It exists throughout the Western world.” Dissent, he added, is acceptable, and not every disagreement constitutes subversion.

Gabbay presented his plans to the party faithful for the first time about three weeks ago, causing a stir among members. It also prompted criticism from Labor Party Knesset members, forcing him to compromise in the end.

Now that the party has approved the changes Gabbay sought, he has internal political challenges to face. He has to appoint a Knesset faction chairperson to replace Merav Michaeli and a chairperson for the State Control Committee, a position that has been filled up to now by the Yesh Atid party.

Labor sources said they thought one of the posts would be filled by Yoel Hasson, who was a Hatnuah Knesset member prior to the formation of Zionist Union, and whose appointment would be seen as a gesture to Livni. The second available slot would be eyed by nearly the entire Labor Party Knesset faction, and any decision on that score will engender dissatisfaction among the losers.