Opinion

Israeli Labor Party Lawmakers Submit to Avi Gabbay

The new chairman is turning the party into Likud, and MKs must choose between their principles and their political careers

Avi Gabbay in Tel Aviv, September 14, 2017
Ilan Assayag

“Anyone for whom this is the apple of his eye can vote his conscience,” Labor Party Chairman Avi Gabbay told Knesset members who wanted to vote against the bill enabling the deportation of asylum seekers. First he threatened them with sanctions, but when he realized he could be subjected to a vote of no confidence, he retreated.

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How much contempt and disgust his statement reflected. But the MKs in the Zionist Union earned it fair and square. They hesitated, twisted and turned, made excuses and abstained, but in the end, they evidently understood that their public image was liable to suffer, and that would cause them at least as much harm as Gabbay’s anger would.

Nevertheless, one can reasonably assume they wouldn’t have dared to object had the latest polls not raised suspicions that Gabbay’s promise to steal votes away from Likud was liable to prove false. The MKs already know that should a fiasco occur (such as has already happened to previous Labor leaders who veered right), the chairman would make out okay, but they would find themselves out of the Knesset.

Thus the key to understanding Labor MKs’ spineless behavior is fear. With several slots on the Knesset slate reserved for candidates of Gabbay’s choosing, and given the current mood in the party, the chances of any of them getting reelected next time are approaching zero. The last thing they need is to display independence and end up like MK Zouheir Bahloul, whom Gabbay has said has no place in Labor.

Nevertheless, this fear, like the accompanying despair, has its roots in previous fears and despairs, the ones that led them to support Gabbay for party chairman to begin with. MKs and party members are fed up with sitting in the political wilderness. They want to return to power, and fast, and they truly believe (once again) that they have a winning card. A successful, wealthy businessman, who dared to quit his job as a cabinet minister! And he’s even of Moroccan origin! Or as one female MK wrote, “I was at his house, what a warm family!”

Their conclusion was that “only Gabbay can do it.” And anyone who said otherwise, or dared to argue that the party was selling out its principles, was forcefully rebuked and accused of arrogance, purism and shooting at his own colleagues.

Recently, they’ve been going around with their eyes glued to the ground. At best, they mutter some tortuous explanation for the wealth of pearls that have come out of the chairman’s mouth — from saying it’s inconceivable for a Jew not to believe in God when his wife calls just as he’s thinking about her, to “the left forgot what it means to be Jewish.” There’s almost nothing left for them to say but “it’s a tactic” or “he’s honest.” Even the claim that “he’s a social democrat” has disappeared, and all that remains in its place is “he’s for a two-state solution” of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

To Gabbay’s credit, it must be said that he means what he says. He’s a man of the right, and he has nothing to do with salient leftist values like “for I still believe in man, in his spirit strong and bold” (to quote the poet Shaul Tchernichovsky), or the right to full civic equality and social justice, or the desire for peace and rejection of the occupation. His contempt for these apples of our eye, like his sanctification of “Jewish” values, is no tactic. It’s completely authentic.

Gabbay is doing, skillfully and diligently, just what he did for the Kulanu party’s campaign in the last election. The result is that Labor is turning into another Likud, and one of the hallmarks of this change is his adoption of a loyalty test. That’s what many MKs and party activists are experiencing now. And while they grit their teeth and remain silent, the rebellion against the deportation law was led by members of the young guard, who have had enough of this fire sale.

If they continue to fight, they can defeat the despair. If not, electoral failure is liable to be the least of Labor’s problems.