Piss Off the Left, Seduce the Right: Avi Gabbay Wants to Replace Netanyahu, and Claims He's Found the Formula

To become prime minister, the Labor Party leader may have to break every rule in Israeli politics ■ Profile

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Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay: "I’m putting all my chips on beating Netanyahu, nothing else."
Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay: "I’m putting all my chips on beating Netanyahu, nothing else."Credit: Photographer: Tomer Appelbaum. Graphic designer: Adi Emanuel
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Four months since his surprise victory in the Labor Party primary, there is still something unreal about the leadership of Avi Gabbay. Since he isn’t a Knesset member or minister, he isn’t even the official leader of the opposition. He draws no salary and has none of the trappings of office. There is no security outside his comfortable home in an upscale part of north Tel Aviv, and he can walk the family dog without drawing attention. While he’s enjoying the last period of informality in his life, he’s also aware he urgently needs to make the transition from new boy on the political block to prime minister-in-waiting.

In his short leadership, Gabbay has managed to anger large swathes of his own party membership and the wider Israeli left. His remarks on Israeli-Arab politicians, the settlements and the left’s lack of Jewish values has transformed him into a figure of controversy, but, he hopes, also a candidate that many traditional, centrist and right-wing voters can contemplate as their prime minister.

Gabbay had a mountain to climb. The master plan was to transform himself, in 18 months, from an unknown in the Labor leadership race to prime minister. Halfway through, he has succeeded in taking Labor by storm. But that turns out to have been the easy part.

He may have won enough votes to become party leader, but he has yet to win members over to his unclear vision. But he is not only challenging the left: he is also challenging a whole set of beliefs that have become stuck in the collective political mind – that Israelis have shifted too far to the right for a Labor victory; that Mizrahi Israelis whose families came from North African or Middle Eastern countries, like Gabbay, are wedded to the right-wing Likud and its satellite parties; that only a former army general has sufficient kudos to shift voters back to the center-left; and that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is unbeatable. And that he may have just one shot and less than six months to do all this.

High risk option

Just over a year ago, Gabbay boarded a plane for Athens, where he planned to reach a decision on his future. Then still anonymous to most of the Israeli public, he was already an ex-minister, following what looked like one of the shortest political careers. Nearing his 50th birthday, he weighed his options. The easy and most comfortable path was to go back to his previous career. As the former CEO of Israel’s largest telecommunications company, Bezeq, and one of the highest-paid executives in Israel, he could find another senior management post or join an investment fund.

But despite a disappointing year as environmental protection minister – during which he had become disillusioned with both Netanyahu and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, with whom he founded the centrist party Kulanu in 2014 – he still had the political bug.

One option was to run for mayor of Tel Aviv in 2019. Another was to join ex-Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon in forming yet another new political party. Instead, Gabbay opted for what he describes as the “high risk – high yield” option.

Moshe Kahlon, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset. Credit: Emil Salman

Shortly after returning from Athens he joined the Labor Party and, three months later, announced his candidacy for its leadership. On July 10, after being a member for only seven months, he was elected as the party’s new leader.

What makes his feeling of urgency even keener is his belief, which he admits to political allies, that he has “only one shot.” He doesn’t have his own camp of supporters in the party, and if the experience of past leaders is anything to go by, if he loses the next Knesset election – which he believes Netanyahu, dogged by police investigations, will call in the spring of 2018 – he has little chance of surviving and getting a second chance. In the 17 years since a Labor leader last served as prime minister, the party has changed leaders eight times. .

Gabbay has no time to spare if he wants to end Labor’s barren run. Which is why he doesn’t really care who he offends on the way up. “I’m sitting in the casino with a pile of chips and I can use some of them to build up my own support in the party and on the left,” he says. “I’m putting all my chips on beating Netanyahu, nothing else.”

He believes that in order to make Labor a contender once more, he has to overhaul the party’s image – and if that angers the veteran leftists whom in private conversations he describes as “contractors of failure,” so be it.

Last week, at a crowded meeting organized by Labor’s student union at the Technion in Haifa, he told the party’s young supporters: “Why haven’t we won? We have a great team and if you present our positions to the public without saying this is Labor, most of the public would vote for them. We haven’t won because Netanyahu has created a politics of identity. What I’m trying to do is break the identity politics and stop people voting according to messages broadcast to their brains.”

As long as Netanyahu survives, the depth of his experience creates in the eyes of many wavering voters a seeming gulf between him and his challengers. Ironically, this recalls the image of the young Netanyahu in the early 1990s, challenging the veterans Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres – men who had helped build the state.

Some in Labor felt their only option was drafting in a former army general to take on Netanyahu. But the ex-generals seem to lack that burning desire necessary to run for prime minister, so instead Labor has a telecoms executive who may not have the CV but lacks nothing in ambition.

The Moroccan angle

Gabbay doesn’t have the epaulets (his short military career was as an intelligence officer on the Lebanon border), but he has a biography that straddles both sides of Israeli-Jewish society – a Moroccan family and childhood in a working-class Jerusalem neighborhood, followed by a stint as a civil servant in the elitist budget division of the Finance Ministry and a meteoric corporate career.

Though he was born in Israel in 1967, he can legitimately claim a connection to the generation of Mizrahim that suffered the degradation of the immigrant transit camps of the 1950s after moving to Israel from North Africa and the Middle East.

Gabbay is particularly interested in emphasizing this element of his biography. Though he hasn’t lived in the more traditional and right-leaning capital for years, right now Gabbay wants to be more Jerusalem than Tel Aviv – more traditional than liberal. A “Moroccan” from outside the Tel Aviv “bubble” may be able to access the reservoir of voters who have felt estranged from Labor for a generation. But Gabbay needs his Tel Aviv identity as well.

He isn’t Labor’s first Mizrahi leader. The Morocco-born Amir Peretz preceded him by over a decade. Peretz was a veteran union leader and no newcomer to politics, but his primary victory over Peres in 2005 was no less surprising than Gabbay’s. In the 2006 Knesset election, Labor under Peretz did better than Likud in many of the right-wing party’s working-class strongholds, but it still only helped the party to 19 Knesset seats.

Peretz became a byword for the aversion of Labor supporters to vote for a Mizrahi leader. No one in Labor has forgotten the footage of Peretz a few days after his election victory, speaking to a group of Jewish Diaspora leaders in broken English. Whether or not fluent English is a prerequisite for being an Israeli prime minister, it became a litmus test for a politician’s sophistication.


“Immediately after Gabbay was elected, they tried to say he didn’t have good English,” says Labor MK Hilik Bar. “They quickly discovered they can’t do that to him. He’s already given good interviews in English and appeared at international conferences.” Labor Party members of Moroccan origin, like Bar, are confident Gabbay will not be a second Peretz. “It’s like Gabbay suddenly appeared, tailor-made, for this moment in Israeli political history,” says Daniel Ben Simon, a former Labor MK and Haaretz journalist who focused much of his reporting on the uneasy integration of Mizrahi communities into contemporary Israel.

“Peretz won the leadership and Labor ran away from him,” Ben Simon notes. “Now with Gabbay they have a second chance. And I think the party understands he brings something new – that Gabbay understands that in Israeli society the fault lines are not between right-wingers who want to swallow the territories and leftists who want to give them back. He comes from a different place and can attract people who never dreamt of voting Labor.

“I speak to Moroccan Israelis all the time, and they admit to me how disgusted and ashamed they are with what is happening in Likud,” he continues. “They still see Labor as being aloof from Mizrahi voters, but Gabbay has no aloofness. He’s unassuming, unlike previous Labor leaders. And even when he’s giving a speech to 500 people, it’s like he’s chatting with friends in a café. Which is also why he makes mistakes in his speeches – but that doesn’t matter anymore in politics. Just look how Trump spoke at his rallies, made thousands of mistakes and still won.”

Gabbay’s supporters also note that the party’s new leader can appeal both to Mizrahi voters and the Ashkenazi middle-class. “He’s what we Moroccans call ‘a white Moroccan,’” says an aide to a former Labor leader.

“Amir [Peretz] spoke the language of the trade unions, of the ideological left,” says Emilie Moatti, a Labor election strategist who’s planning to run for the next Knesset. “Gabbay lives in north Tel Aviv, drives an expensive car and travels the world. He is a business success story who can appeal to Labor’s bourgeoisie elite.”

Moatti believes that in the decade since Peretz’s victory, Israeli society has also changed. “You have a lot more Mizrahim in prominent leadership positions. It’s become much more natural with the Israeli-born, second generation of Mizrahi immigration coming to the fore. Gabbay is their representative,” she says.

A new breed

Gabbay bristles when reminded that he lives in the same north Tel Aviv enclave as previous Labor leader Isaac Herzog and his main rival for the center ground, Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid. He doesn’t want to be identified too closely with the old Ashkenazi elite. He needs to present himself as a new breed: the CEO who came from the immigrant transit camps, even though they had already closed when he was born in 1967.

He peppers his speeches with anecdotes and family stories. When he criticizes Netanyahu’s latest machinations, he says, “My grandmother would have called this hashuma” (Moroccan Arabic for “shame”). When talking about the shortcomings of the Israeli education system he notes: “My mother had eight years of formal education and my father never went to school. But I was a freak. The question is whether the national education system can help every kid from my background and not just the freaks.”

The same narrative is used for social mobility: “I’m one of eight brothers and sisters, and there’s nothing to inherit. But 25 years ago, when I left the army and started life, I knew we could get a mortgage and buy a small apartment. Today, you need hundreds of thousands of shekels from your parents to buy an apartment – and even if you can buy one, you’re enslaved by those four walls.”

Gabbay now belongs to the same millionaire class as Netanyahu, Herzog and Lapid, and as a gifted kid even attended the same elitist high school as the Netanyahu brothers. But he won’t let you forget he was born on the other side of the tracks.

But he also wants you to know he’s a cosmopolitan man of the world. He frequently uses English in his speeches – such as when he tells his listeners his high-school-teacher wife, Ayelet, gives him a nightly “download” on the failings of the school system. And of course he’s got the pop culture allusions: When he criticizes the government for wasting millions on a one-night celebration for 50 years of settlement activity, “it’s like Beyoncé arrived in Israel.”

Are both Avi Gabbays – the one who tweets photos of his mother’s Rosh Hashanah couscous and the sophisticated CEO who likes to use management-speak – real? Can an Israeli politician be both “Jerusalem” and “Tel Aviv”? Gabbay’s one shot at winning an election relies on convincing Israeli voters he is both.

But in politics, what often defines you is less those who identify with you, and more those you piss off.

Scandalizing the left

Since his election in July, Gabbay seems to have done everything he could to infuriate the Israeli left. Outside the student union hall in Haifa last week, much of the discussion before his arrival concerned his recent remarks. “I’ve voted Labor all my life,” one young student remarked to her friends. “I won’t be voting for Gabbay. He’s not even a leftist.”

Nominally, the leader of Labor is also the leader of the Israeli left. But since the days of David Ben-Gurion, Labor has generally been led by “defense hawks” and, since the mid-1980s, has hewn to neoliberal economic policies. It should really be regarded as centrist or even centrist-right.

Gabbay is on an express mission to rebrand Labor and recreate the hawkish image its forerunner, Mapai, enjoyed under Ben-Gurion. Anxious that the next election could take place in less than six months, he is going at it like a bulldozer – and to hell with whoever he insults along the way. In recent months, on a weekly basis, he has scandalized the left with a series of statements that many party members view as heretical.

In October, during a speech in Be’er Sheva, he said that should he be elected, his government coalition would not include the Joint List (the Arab alliance in the Knesset). In real political terms this was a meaningless statement, since no former coalition has ever included these parties and they have no interest in making the necessary compromises to be coalition members. But in saying so, Gabbay seemed to be pandering to right-wing, anti-Arab sentiment. Two weeks later, he compounded this by stating that Labor’s only Arab MK, Zouheir Bahloul, had no place in the party after saying he would not attend the Knesset sessions marking the Balfour Declaration’s centenary.

Gabbay, who repeatedly says he supports the two-state solution, further angered many colleagues when he said that removing settlements in the West Bank was “unfeasible” and that in a future peace agreement with the Palestinians, there is a way for them to remain in place.

It was his remarks on Jewish identity that caused the greatest uproar, though. Gabbay presents himself as “traditional,” which in contemporary Israeli parlance translates as neither fully religious and Mitzvah-observant, but not fully secular either. He invited the chief rabbi to speak at his first Labor conference and carries a kippa in his pocket – and unlike most Israeli politicians, it looks natural when he puts it on. And when he said he can’t understand how you can be Jewish without believing in God, many Laborites squirmed awkwardly.

But when he quoted Netanyahu’s poisonous whisper from 20 years ago that “the left has forgotten what it means to be Jewish,” many felt he had crossed a red line. “You know what the left did in response?” Gabbay told students in Be’er Sheva. “They forgot what it means to be Jewish. It’s like they said, ‘OK, you said that – so from now on we’re just liberals.’”

For once, Gabbay apologized the next day to anyone who had been offended, explaining he was merely trying to say the left had allowed itself to be painted into a corner by Netanyahu and that it had equal claims over Jewish identity. But the damage had been done.

“Settlements and religion are radioactive issues,” complains one Labor MK. “Talking about them carelessly can be fatal. I get that Gabbay wants to be authentic and say what he really thinks and feels. But this isn’t a student union election.”

“It wasn’t just offensive. It also presented an ignorance on Gabbay’s part of the heritage of humanistic Judaism on the left,” says another Labor MK. “I hope he knows what he’s doing and that he’s really reaching new sections of the electorate. I’m not sure, but he’s the newly elected leader so we’ll have to go along with him.”

Gabbay is convinced the wider public wants politicians to address these issues – especially religion. He claims to have closely studied the last U.S. presidential election and drawn the conclusion that the Democrats lost to Donald Trump because they were detached from large parts of the electorate, especially religious voters, and that the Israeli left suffers the same problem.

Gabbay’s electoral strategy can be summarized thus: Most people agree about most things. He’s convinced that over two-thirds of voters agree that Israel must separate itself from the Palestinians. That they identify with traditional Jewish values, but don’t want to be coerced into observing religious strictures. And that they are in favor of a market economy, but want to see the government taking more responsibility for education, health and social services. Sounds simple, but if that truly is the case, why has Labor won only once in the last quarter of a century?

“Netanyahu’s power is that he has created this aura of being father-of-the-nation,” says one Labor MK. “It’s not that Israelis have any illusions about him, but the feeling among much of the public is that he will at least take care of our security. To beat him, a challenger has to give the public this feeling, and I don’t think Gabbay has that, so his chances of beating Netanyahu are very low. But there’s a chance Netanyahu won’t be able to run in the next election because of the corruption investigations. If that happens, the field is wide open.”

Labor MKs are wary of openly criticizing Gabbay. “We’re giving him enough rope to do his own thing,” says one MK, speaking anonymously. “Either it works or he hangs himself.”

Instead of speaking of Gabbay’s flaws, MKs fret about the lack of a figure with a security background in the party’s leadership. MK Omer Bar-Lev, another candidate in this year’s leadership primary, notes that he also ran on a campaign “saying to the party members we have been irrelevant for too long. Likud has run us off the field on the diplomatic and security issues, and as a former senior IDF officer I wanted us to reestablish our security credentials. Gabbay is trying to restore our credentials on tradition and religion. I agree we have to do that as well, but people vote for whoever they think can ensure their security.”

Avi Gabbay, in front of a portrait of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

“Gabbay is right that we have to reach beyond our center-left core and reach other parts of Israeli society to win,” says MK Bar. “But if you look at our last victories, it was when Labor was led by Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak, who were both former IDF chiefs of staff. They brought that added value to Labor’s brand. Gabbay believes he can bring added value by talking about his childhood and reaching out to the working-class and Mizrahi sectors, and by talking about Jewish values.”

Gabbay himself insists his credentials as CEO of a large company prove he can run Israel’s military establishment and promises he will draft senior ex-generals to Labor’s leadership before the next election. But he is wary of putting too much store by military stars. One of his formative experiences as a young intelligence officer was a series of lectures 30 years ago by Gen. Yoel Ben-Porat, commander of the IDF’s signal intelligence collection unit in 1973. On the eve of the Yom Kippur War, he had warned that the Egyptians were about to attack Israel, but senior IDF officers – prisoners of the concept that Egypt wouldn’t attack – didn’t listen. Gabbay says he has questioned accepted concepts ever since. Now he’s challenging the concept that Labor can only win with a general at its helm.

Waiting for the vision

Gabbay is currently in the United States, on his first official foreign visit as Labor’s leader. He is scheduled to address the Saban Forum in Washington and may provide more details on his diplomatic policy. So far, though, it has been rather threadbare. He insists this is intentional, since he doesn’t want to disclose his conditions for a peace agreement with the Palestinians before he is actually negotiating with them as prime minister. He has more detailed social and economic policies, but it still seems a bit haphazard. Gabbay says he feels comfortable as a “retail politician” and that he isn’t tied down by any dogma. But Labor members, even those who support him, grumble that they have yet to see a clear vision from Gabbay.

The most detailed positions he is willing to talk about concern religion and state. And while his remarks have largely angered the secular left, his policies are more likely to create conflict with the ultra-Orthodox (or Haredim). He always speaks of his plan to allow municipalities to allow public transportation on Shabbat, “a basic social right for the poorer communities that have no other way of getting around.” But talking to Haaretz, he acknowledges this is just part of dismantling the “status quo” on religion that has existed in Israel for nearly 70 years.

No previous government, Labor or Likud, has opposed the status quo, but Gabbay believes it “has crawled in the direction of more religious stringency and against those who want to live freely in Israel. We have to redefine the status quo and our relationship with the ultra-Orthodox.”

Gabbay is also in favor of finally allowing civil marriage in Israel, though he acknowledges this will be difficult in a coalition that includes religious parties. He wants to gradually end the division in the educational system, initially by allocating preferential funding to “mixed” schools that accept children of all backgrounds, religious and secular, Jewish and Arab.

Gabbay’s olive branch to the Haredim is over military service. He’s against trying to coerce yeshiva students into joining the army. Instead, he proposes increasing the financial and academic benefits for combat soldiers in the hope it will induce more young Haredim to enlist and eliminate the resentment against yeshiva students who refuse to serve. But this is unlikely to mollify the Haredi politicians who view the status quo as sacrosanct.

Gabbay seems to believe he can either convince them to make hitherto-unmade compromises or become the first Labor prime minister in 40 years to form a coalition without needing an ultra-Orthodox party to make up a Knesset majority.

Mixed results

Gabbay’s hurried attempts to relocate Labor to the center of the political spectrum are showing mixed results. In the four months under Gabbay, Zionist Union (the Knesset alliance of which Labor is the main component) has rebounded from the single-digit results that polls were predicting in the last months of Herzog’s leadership and is now polling at 17 to 20 seats. That’s still not as good as the 24 seats Zionist Union won under Herzog in 2015 – and even that was insufficient to beat Netanyahu. What’s even more worrying is that Labor still trails Yesh Atid (polling at 20 to 24 seats) for second place, proving that, for now at least, Lapid is a more convincing centrist candidate.

Gabbay is convinced he can be prime minister six months from now, but he’s yet to become a household name and can still walk the streets incognito. “The good thing about all these statements angering the left is that Gabbay is now constantly in the headlines, like Herzog never was,” observes one Labor MK. “But will it bring us enough new voters to make up for those we seem to be losing in the polls to Yesh Atid and [the more left-wing] Meretz, and then enough to beat Likud?” To do that, he will have to break every rule in Israeli politics.

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