Opinion |

Israeli Labor Party's New Leader Drags It Out of Comfort Zone

Laborites would rather sit on the sidelines and cluck with scornful disapproval, while secretly hoping that ‘this Gabbay guy’ will bring back their glory days

Ran Shimoni
Ran Shimoni
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Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay speaking at Ben-Gurion University in Be'er Sheva, November 13, 2017.
Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay speaking at Ben-Gurion University in Be'er Sheva, November 13, 2017.Credit: Ilan Assayag
Ran Shimoni
Ran Shimoni

Avi Gabbay is veering rightward, so they say, but the headline being attached to his recent moves is mistaken. It is based upon the history of the Labor Party, of failed attempts by its earlier leaders to cast themselves as “one of the people.” With leaders like Isaac Herzog, the lawyer with a famous pedigree, or Ehud Barak, the kibbutznik from the Sayeret Matkal elite commandos, veering rightward was never a real option. With them, the kind of statements Gabbay has been making could only be explained as attempts to grovel to the right. With Gabbay, however, the “right-wing” statements, authentic or not, happen to jibe with his image, so he has a chance of succeeding where the others failed.

Gabbay’s main problem, which he has yet to grasp, actually relates to the base out of which he is operating. Sooner or later – too late, perhaps – he will have to realize that if he wants to become prime minister, he will first have to satisfy his natural constituency, those who always seem to be gazing at the world in binary and monolithic terms, for whom a merely serviceable command of English is something to be held in the utmost scorn and a visit to the Western Wall clearly signifies alignment with the right. When every move by the party chairman makes Labor voters worry that their party “is being taken from them,” one can’t expect any potential voters to view the already much-maligned party as a potential political home.

In a recent piece, Secular Forum director Ram Froman writes that he feels nothing but derision for secular politicians who put on a kippa. He’s not the only one from the left who is unsettled by such sights, who simply cannot reconcile the religious duality in which most people in this country live, one that doesn’t fit the schematic categories he was always taught to believe in. And now, for a change, the Labor Party leader somehow resembles the majority of the population. But for Froman and others, religiosity and secularism are completely separate categories that take one form and one form only, with no shadings whatsoever. For Froman and others like him, any sign of a lifestyle that does not fit into the one and only acceptable form of secularism is automatically labeled as “anti-secular” and as evidence of a traitorous cozying-up to the right.

Those who are so fearful of the sympathy Gabbay shows for the religious world forget all about other healthy statements he’s made about freedom from religious coercion. They’re too busy panicking over headlines like the one from the other day about how “the left forgot how to be Jewish,” or working themselves up over his participation in some obscure program on a rightward-leaning channel about the weekly Torah portion. Gabbay has said the important things that need to be said about freedom from religious coercion. But meanwhile they wail and tear their hair out about his stated refusal to bring the Joint Arab List into a future coalition, as if it has ever been part of an Israeli government, as if its electoral power is sufficient to form a coalition, as if it were a natural coalition partner.

Glance at Gabbay’s Facebook page and you’ll see plenty of derisive and derogatory comments about whatever pictures he posts. When he posted a picture with a bowl of harira soup after the Yom Kippur fast, among the comments were “You’ve lost your way” and “First the shack in the transit camp, now the couscous and harira too? You forgot the wife-beater undershirt.”

Labor made the right move in selecting Gabbay. The party’s voters understood that a change was needed, that the party’s current way has been a failure, that if Labor can’t reach new people the only way it will ever get back to the Prime Minister’s Office is via time machine. But while they realize that times have changed, they aren’t really ready to accept that change. They recognize that there are new rules, but aren’t willing to take part in the game. They’d rather sit on the sidelines and cluck with scornful disapproval, while secretly hoping that “this Gabbay guy” will bring back their glory days.

Maybe he will, but not in the way they hoped, for that is not possible. And they know this full well – which is the reason why they elected Avi Gabbay and not someone else. Labor voters will have to understand that the path to forming a coalition passes through unfamiliar landscapes – not only through negotiations with Meretz alone, but also through crafty accords with center-right parties, United Torah Judaism and Shas.

It’s for the sake of other eyes that Gabbay will speak in Efrat, appear on Channel 20 and cite his ethnic heritage whenever possible, in the hope that another pair of eyes will translate into another vote on Election Day. If Labor voters are willing to accept it, the kippa in the pocket will serve them as well, as will the harira soup after the fast that they’ve never fasted. Who knows – maybe the day will come when they can recognize these things as communal and cultural symbols of equal value to those with which they are more familiar.

Before the next election, Labor voters ought to join in the political game. If they want to take the reins of leadership, the change will have to come in full – not just in the election of a new and different kind of representative, but going beyond that, down a path they’ve never taken before. One in which inclusivity is important, a world in which principles and pragmatism live side by side. In the new world, a solution on the basis of the ’67 lines is fantasy, and therefore settlement evacuation is a topic open to discussion. Avi Gabbay understands this. It was his flexibility that enabled him to come from outside the party to leading it in just a few months. Now it’s time for Labor voters to understand too: If you want to win, first you have to get in the game.

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