Analysis

With Avi Gabbay's Election, Israel's Labor Party Proves There's Life Before Death

Like Trump and Macron, Gabbay overtook his party's 'old guard' and could upset Israel's entire political balance. Should Netanyahu be concerned?

The Labor Party proved on Monday that there is life before death. The party, which has been down for the count for a long time, has woken up and, with the last of its strength, given itself a vital tank of oxygen, at least in the near term.

Its election of a nonchalant businessman with unbelievable aspirations as its chairman was excellent political drama, an earthquake measuring seven on the Gabbay scale. It has the potential – though no certainty – of reshuffling the deck of the center-left camp, undermining the consensus that has reigned here for the last two years and sending shockwaves through the entire political system. 

In some scenarios, these waves could even reach the ruling Likud party. But in the current circumstances, it’s hard to say that Gabbay’s election is bad news for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Right now, he has much bigger worries.

Avi Gabbai, the new leader of Israel's Labor party, delivers his victory speech after winning the Labor party primary runoff, at an event in Tel Aviv, Israel July 10, 2017
AMIR COHEN/REUTERS

Gabbay’s election reflected Labor members’ frustration over the fact that their party has become a doormat, a byword for scorn and mockery. Their despair led them to choose the most unreasonable, most ludicrous, most daring and subversive option. Never before has such a thing happened in this party: A relative unknown, who joined its ranks just a few months ago, managed, over the course of two rounds, to defeat several candidates who are Labor’s flesh and blood, its bone and sinew. 

In the United States, Donald Trump did something similar. In France, Emmanuel Macron went even further: He established a party in no time and went on to capture first the presidency and then parliament.

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Gabbay’s election was possible only because of the electoral and public nadir to which Labor has fallen. The party needed a jolt of electricity, and that’s what it got. The old guard’s sweeping mobilization against Gabbay and in favor of his rival, Amir Peretz, also seems to have caused a healthy counter-reaction among the voters. 

The day after the first round of voting, Peretz rushed to be photographed alongside the chairman of the Histadrut labor federation, Avi Nissenkorn, who had enlisted the entire Histadrut organization to help Peretz’s campaign. The smug Nissenkorn and his people believed this would tip the scales. They celebrated and boasted prematurely. It turns out that not all Labor members in the Histadrut felt obliged to follow the orders of a chairman whose own method of getting elected is still under investigation.

Signs of Monday’s upset in the Labor Party were already evident on the night of July 4, last Tuesday, when the results of the first round were announced. Peretz came in first, but he beat Gabbay by only five percentage points – around 2,000 votes. That was a huge achievement for Gabbay and reason for Peretz to worry: Despite his long experience of competing in party contests and support not just from the Histadrut, but also from a long list of prominent Knesset members and many mayors, he didn't manage to rout the green, somewhat nave tyro who lacked all those advantages. 

Final results of Labor primary

The second round proved something else: The party that never gives anyone a second chance once again refused to give a former party leader a second chance (granted, Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak managed to stage comebacks, but they were both former prime ministers).

The fact that the defeated incumbent, Isaac Herzog, and another defeated candidate, MK Erel Margalit both backed Peretz gave off a sour smell of affront and anger at the brazen newcomer who dared to crash their party. Even torture couldn’t extract a good word about Peretz from either Herzog or Margalit. Yet they closed ranks with him to build a wall against the rising star, only to see it collapse under the weight of the masses. The old boys received an unequivocal message from the voters: Wake up, your time has passed.

In contrast, MK Shelly Yacimovich, who unsurprisingly backed Gabbay against their shared rival, Peretz, is entitled to bask in sweet victory, whose taste she had long since forgotten. She can certainly take some of the credit for his achievement. The vast majority of her activists and volunteers joined Gabbay’s campaign back in the first round, and even more so in the second. 

It will be interesting to see what happens now in the Knesset. Herzog is expected to resign as opposition leader, and indeed ought to do so after backing Peretz. Since Gabbay, not being an MK, can’t take over the job himself, Yacimovich is the natural candidate to do so.

Who else was celebrating on Monday? Ehud Barak, who had publicly backed Gabbay from the very start of the race. Barak longs to return to political life. Given Gabbay’s complete lack of experience in national security and diplomacy, adding Barak to his leadership team could benefit both of them, in the right circumstances.

And who was gnashing his teeth? Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon. The Kulanu party chairman – who felt betrayed, with some justice, by his partner Gabbay in establishing that party, who quit the cabinet to protest Avigdor Lieberman’s appointment as defense minister – had expected Gabbay to lose, to be brought down by his disloyalty.

But this was always more wishful thinking than sober political analysis. It turns out that loyalty is for the weak.

Gabbay said during his campaign that he was the only candidate capable of bringing Kulanu voters over to Labor. That has yet to be proven, but Kahlon now finds himself in an uncomfortable position. This political development could actually strengthen his weak ties with Netanyahu.

The same goes for Yair Lapid. Before the new Labor chairman can take on Likud, he must first return most of the voters – 10 to 12 Knesset seats’ worth – who abandoned Labor for Lapid’s Yesh Atid party. This is the first critical hurdle that Gabbay must pass before he can start fantasizing about replacing the government. 

The polls in the coming days and weeks will provide an indication of the future. If the voters don’t return, and quickly, Gabbay will start circulating among his new party colleagues with a target on his back. They won’t hesitate to seal his fate, and they won’t wait long to do it.