Opinion

Israel’s Center-left Must Ditch the Costume and Pivot to the Arabs

Avi Gabbay (center), with the leadership of the Labor Party, Jerusalem, April 15, 2019.
Emil Salman

Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay has managed to make almost all the other party heads hate him. With Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, the reason is obvious: Gabbay tells in his book about the way Kahlon got him appointed environmental protection minister; back then, Gabbay was in Kahlon’s Kulanu party. It’s an incredible story. Kahlon promised Gabbay that he would be appointed a minister, but at a certain stage their relationship cooled.

“Kahlon is a traditional person and a believer, and I knew that if he made me a promise he would feel very uncomfortable if he didn’t keep it,” Gabbay wrote. “I called a rabbi, a relative of mine, and asked how it would be possible to free a believer from a vow he made to me. He told me I had to tell him: ‘I consent.’ That would release him from his vow as if he had fulfilled it.”

Kahlon wasn’t convinced by the rabbi and so while clearly not wanting to do so, he got Gabbay appointed a minister. Gabbay’s later resignation from the cabinet and the party was viewed by Kahlon as the mother of all betrayals.

But what about all the other party leaders? The rivalry with Avigdor Lieberman, whose entry into the government triggered Gabbay’s resignation, actually does Gabbay some good. Gabbay’s harsh conflict with Tzipi Livni within the now defunct Zionist Union can also be understood somehow, but how did it happen that Gabbay and Meretz chief Tamar Zandberg have fallen out? And how did Gabbay manage to clash so badly with Yair Lapid?

Avi Gabbay and Moshe Kahlon speak to reporters in Haifa as part of the Kulanu party, Septermber 17, 2015.
Rami Shllush

Lapid had a hard time forgiving Gabbay for hiring people to attack him online. Lapid was particularly furious about a false post accusing him of manipulating the date of his sister’s death for political purposes.

In general, as chairman of the Labor Party, Gabbay has made almost every possible mistake: He gave a long and boring victory speech after the primary, he wasted time, energy and political capital on changes to the party constitution – with the goal of letting him determine who would serve as the party’s ministers in a government – and he took part in worthless events, some of them even damaging.

Benny Gantz speaks immediately following the elections, Tel Aviv, April 9, 2019.
Emil Salman

But the important political lesson of the election is how much the costume was unnecessary. The pathetic attempt by Gabbay to masquerade as a rightist didn’t help him. Lapid worked for four years on the costume of a center-right politician – he condemned Breaking the Silence, preached about annexing the Golan Heights and more than once outflanked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from the right. But when the moment of truth came, Netanyahu treated Lapid as a leftist and an electoral burden.

Even if Gabbay and Lapid hadn’t dressed up, the results wouldn’t have been very different. Benny Gantz’s entry into the arena would have left them in the dust either way. Maybe Gantz is also masquerading, but it works better for a former army chief. Also, he brought true rightists into his party. Gantz really managed to squeeze the maximum out of his political camp.

If you compare the results to those of the 2015 election, you can see that the Zionist left (Yesh Atid, Zionist Union and Meretz, compared to Kahol Lavan, Labor and Meretz) rose from 40 to 45 Knesset seats. But Gantz’s achievement is even greater: In October 2018, the opinion polls showed only 32 to 36 seats for that bloc. Orli Levi-Abekasis may have had six seats at the time, most of which “belonged” to the center-left camp, but still, to increase the camp from 34 to about 45 seats in five months is a dramatic achievement.

Tamar Zandberg reaches out to Arab voters on Election Day, Kfar Qassem, April 9, 2019.

So it’s actually because of this achievement that we must draw the correct political conclusion. It’s impossible to move any farther right than Gantz did. The only way it seems the center-left can change the government is to increase the voter turnout in the Arab community to that of the overall population – and give five more Knesset seats to parties that could then be able to establish a center-left governing coalition.

The time has come to stop spending energy on the four or five Knesset seats of the supposedly “soft right,” if they exist at all, and strive for another five to seven Knesset seats from the Arab community. This means a total change in the way the leaders of the center-left are going about things.