Opinion

The Last Torchbearer of Israel's Center-left Origins

Avi Gabbay has been elected the Labor Party's new chairman, but actually it's former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon who has the stuff to return Labor to its defense-focused roots

Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon explains his resignation at IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv on Friday, May 20, 2016.
Tomer Appelbaum

Had the Labor Party, as it claims, been the genuine successor to the Mapai party that lasted from 1930 to 1968, then Moshe Ya’alon, not Avi Gabbay, would have made the victory speech Tuesday night after the leadership primary.

Even though Ya’alon transplanted himself for a while into a party he didn’t belong in (Likud, which indeed rejected the transplant), he’s the epitome of the son who follows in his father’s footsteps. He was raised on Labor’s lap, nourished himself on its roots and carried out its way – the way of David Ben-Gurion – by setting up a kibbutz in the southern Negev before his long service in the army that was marked by great deeds.

Gabbay, whose roots are in Likud, has been crowned by a camp with an exact opposite ideology. His amiability, good intentions and managerial skills aren’t enough to make him leader of a camp that claims to espouse a unique ideology.

Labor didn’t collapse (only) because of a chronic lack of leadership. It sank deeper and deeper because it abandoned that “unique ideology” – that is, its most basic values – and started seeking, as the prophet said, “broken cisterns that can hold no water.”

An agreeable personality won’t be enough to bring the party back to its roots. In essence, the goals Gabbay outlined in his victory speech are no different from those of Yair Lapid, Moshe Kahlon or even Benjamin Netanyahu (who also prefers Dimona to Amona).

Gabbay’s speech also exposed how much he misses the shared memories, how he yearns for the experience – an absence that can’t be filled – of belonging to the element that elected him chairman. In electing him, Labor acted like a company that needed a new chairman from the outside to rescue it from its gaping losses. The speech, although meticulously prepared, didn’t present a unique business plan, didn’t clarify what product he’ll be marketing, what kind of Labor this will be, and to where the battered boat will sail in the storm raging in Israel.

Ya’alon chose Likud because his camp had sprinted to the left, far from the founding fathers’ focus on defense. He soon discovered that Likud’s sentiment may be activist, but the party lacks the resolve, perseverance, pioneering tradition and deep ideology that characterized the camp he abandoned.

Avi Gabbay gives a speech after being voted in as the new leader of Israel's main opposition Labor Party on July 10, 2017 in Tel Aviv.
JACK GUEZ/AFP

Not that today’s Labor is soaked with these values, far from it, but traces of them still exist in its DNA. Ya’alon could have revived them, had he chosen the hard way, as he did in his varied life stops, and jumped like a lifeguard into the shallow waters of the crashing party. Could he have brought Labor back to the road it strayed from since the Six-Day War? Highly doubtful. But that’s his natural habitat, and only there, if he managed to rehabilitate it, would he have a chance to return to the national leadership.

In this euphoric week, in which the media mobilized to raise Gabbay to the status of a redeeming angel, I would be seen as cut off from reality if I suggested a leader to replace Gabbay. But I suggest, despite the general ecstasy, that my proposal be taken seriously. It may turn out, and probably will, that even under Gabbay, Labor, which won’t differ ideologically from Yesh Atid and Kulanu, will continue to flounder. Then the need for a new chairman will arise again.

But this new chairman too, due to fundamental structural changes in Israeli society, probably won’t be able to bring Labor back to power in the foreseeable future. He may stabilize it though, restore its identity and return it to the main road of activist Zionism. This way, and no other, is the only one that can get Labor to take off again. And that’s no mean feat.

This man is Moshe Ya’alon.