Opinion

Gabbay’s Callous Decapitation of Livni Could Pave the Way for a New Israeli Left

The Labor Party leader may have enraged women – but he showed the kind of killer instinct that is a prerequisite for any aspiring prime minister

Avi Gabbay at a press conference in Jerusalem, December 24, 2018.
Olivier Fitoussi

Labor Party Chairman Avi Gabbay walked precipitously close to the edge on Tuesday. In other countries, with different agendas, he would have fallen into the abyss.

Gabbay’s public shaming and hazing of Tzipi Livni on live TV may have been accepted in macho, nationalist right wing parties that idolize Donald Trump, but in center-left social democratic parties, of the kind Labor once aspired to be, his political demise would be assured. Half of his potential voters – meaning women – would abandon him forever.

Gabbay announcing Labor split from Livni's Hatnuah.

But given that this is Israel, the ramifications of Gabbay’s cruel adios to Livni are more ambiguous. For many, the ugly divorce in the Zionist Camp could actually strengthen Gabbay rather than weaken him.

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After a long period in which his only response to his faltering polls was an irrelevant mumble, Gabbay seized center stage, showed leadership and cut his party in two. He proved that he too possesses the kind of killer instinct that has proven to be a prerequisite for becoming prime minister.

In any case, it’s too early to fully assess the shock waves that will reverberate as a result of the implosion in the Zionist Union (of blessed memory). Since the surprise announcement last week of early elections on April 9, the earth is moving, the political system is shaking, and parties are disintegrating but will soon reconstitute in different form.

Even if the prediction that the upcoming election campaign will focus on one question only – Netanyahu: Yes or no – is borne out, the rearrangement of the Israeli political map will leave its stamp for many years after the current prime minister departs.

The split in the Zionist Union ostensibly weakens the bloc that seeks to defeat Netanyahu, just as Saturday night’s abrupt abandonment of Habayit Hayehudi by Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked is seen as splintering the right wing that that supports him.

The right lives with the painful trauma of the 1992 elections, in which votes for small right-wing parties were lost because of the Knesset’s electoral threshold, which now stands at 3.25 percent.

The left, on the other hand, is beholden to the mantra that only a broad coalition of all the parties on the center-left is capable of driving Netanyahu out of office.

Reports that Gabbay was sending out feelers to Benny Gantz, the former army chief of staff and current Great White Hope of the Israeli center, moments after decapitating Livni, indicates that he too subscribes –regrettably – to the prevailing conventional wisdom.

The expulsion of Livni, one of the chief proponents of the big bloc doctrine, along with the essence of Gabbay’s otherwise overwrought sentence proclaimed at the scene of her banishment, open a window to a different scenario, one in which the fight against Netanyahu is carried out on two fronts rather than one.

Drawing from his own biography as an underprivileged child who scaled the walls of Israel’s entrenched Ashkenazi establishment, Gabbay emphasized social gaps and equality rather than the usual left-right focus on peace and democracy.

Together with the vocal support he received from his Labor Party predecessor Shelly Yachimovich, who is identified with such issues more than anyone, Gabbay’s message paves the way, theoretically at least, for Labor to reassume its role as the standard bearer of Israel’s social-democratic wing.

At a time of increasing social ferment, which is only partially linked to Netanyahu’s personal fate, such a shift could galvanize Labor’s currently demoralized electorate.

Labor’s eternal quest for new starts to light up its Knesset list does not have to make do with the desirable yet limited pool of former army generals, There are enough charismatic Israelis, renowned in realms other than national security, that could invigorate Labor voters with a sense of renewal and momentum.

The single-bloc theory suffers from a fatal flaw: Just as it is meant to draw right wingers who loathe Netanyahu to the center, it could concurrently repel centrists alarmed by an alliance with the left in the opposite direction.

A two-headed approach – a centrist bloc focused on security and a leftist bloc that emphasis social issues – might be able to maximize the potential electorate more efficiently than a unified Knesset list that would necessarily combine polar opposites.

Such a split would also mark the dividing line between one bloc, say one headed by Gabbay, that loudly and clearly says no to any future collaboration with Netanyahu, and another, say one headed by Gantz, that will continue to murmur, maybe, we’ll see, depends on the circumstances, all the way to election day.

In this regard, Gabbay’s camp already has a fitting name, courtesy of Shaked and Bennett, that could be adopted straightaway were it not for the stigma attached to it. Bennett and Shaked called their party The New Right. Gabbay, without Livni, should be The New Left.