Labor Party chairman Avi Gabbay did the right thing when he announced on Tuesday that he won’t run for reelection as the party’s leader. Gabbay was elected chairman in July 2017 with 52 percent of the vote after beating Amir Peretz in the second round of the primary. Though his victory was welcomed euphorically by Labor voters, the party under his leadership won just six Knesset seats in the recent election. That’s an embarrassing result, both compared to the labor movement’s glorious history and compared to its results in the 2015 election, when the Zionist Union joint ticket, headed by Labor’s Isaac Herzog and Hatnuah’s Tzipi Livni, won 24 seats.
Gabbay recognized his failure. “We went on the campaign with an infinite number of problems from every direction, a campaign full of complex challenges, both internal and external, which made our task very difficult,” he said. He added, “There were also mistakes, for which I take full responsibility. But I know they were made out of a genuine belief in our path and commitment to victory.”
Indeed, Gabbay made serious mistakes when he first took the reins. People who believed that he was the right man at the right time, and that he had the ability to attract new groups of voters to the party, later felt that for this goal, Gabbay was willing to alienate Zionist Union’s base and ignore its values. His willingness to accept Benjamin Netanyahu’s stereotype of the left as having “forgotten what it means to be Jewish” caused many to reject his leadership. Many voters were also infuriated when he dissolved Zionist Union and ousted Livni on live television. They felt that in his efforts to get rid of the leftist label, he had forgotten the left’s values.
Granted, he eventually seemed to come to his senses and conducted a focused campaign, but it was too little, too late. Ultimately, his consideration of entering Netanyahu’s government as finance minister, in defiance of his campaign promise, and thereby rescue Netanyahu from an electoral tie was the final nail in his political coffin.
In fairness, it must be said that his own mistakes weren’t the only thing he had going against him. The entry into the race of former Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz and Gantz’s formation of the Kahol Lavan joint ticket created a strong, attractive political alternative that reshuffled the deck. Many Zionist Union voters ended up voting Kahol Lavan because they thought it had the best chance to replace Netanyahu’s government.
The Tel Aviv District Court ruled on Tuesday that the party must hold a referendum among its 60,000 members to determine how its new leader and its Knesset slate should be chosen. The members will have to decide whether to hold primaries or let the Labor convention choose both the leader and the slate. But either way, Labor would do well to learn from Gabbay’s mistakes before the September election. Its efforts to appeal to new groups of voters must not come at the expense of loyalty to its old voters, or to the basic values that connect them.
The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.