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Another outsider wins party leadership

Avi Gabbay, the new leader of Israel’s Labour party, delivers his victory speech after winning the Labour party primary runoff, at an event in Tel Aviv, July 10, 2017. Photo by Ofer Vaknin

With Avi Gabbay’s Election, Israel’s Labour Party Proves There’s Life Before Death

Like Trump and Macron, Gabbay overtook his party’s ‘old guard’ and could upset Israel’s entire political balance. Should Netanyahu be concerned?

By Yossi Verter, Haaretz premium
July 11, 2017

The Labour Party proved on Monday that there is life before death. The party, which has been down for the count for a long time, has woken up and, with the last of its strength, given itself a vital tank of oxygen, at least in the near term.

Its election of a nonchalant businessman with unbelievable aspirations as its chairman was excellent political drama, an earthquake measuring seven on the Gabbay scale. It has the potential – though no certainty – of reshuffling the deck of the centre-left camp, undermining the consensus that has reigned here for the last two years and sending shockwaves through the entire political system.

In some scenarios, these waves could even reach the ruling Likud party. But in the current circumstances, it’s hard to say that Gabbay’s election is bad news for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Right now, he has much bigger worries.

Gabbay’s election reflected Labour members’ frustration over the fact that their party has become a doormat, a byword for scorn and mockery. Their despair led them to choose the most unreasonable, most ludicrous, most daring and subversive option. Never before has such a thing happened in this party: A relative unknown, who joined its ranks just a few months ago, managed, over the course of two rounds, to defeat several candidates who are Labour’s flesh and blood, its bone and sinew.

In the United States, Donald Trump did something similar. In France, Emmanuel Macron went even further: He established a party in no time and went on to capture first the presidency and then parliament.

Gabbay’s election was possible only because of the electoral and public nadir to which Labour has fallen. The party needed a jolt of electricity, and that’s what it got. The old guard’s sweeping mobilization against Gabbay and in favour of his rival, Amir Peretz, also seems to have caused a healthy counter-reaction among the voters.

The day after the first round of voting, Peretz rushed to be photographed alongside the chairman of the Histadrut labour federation, Avi Nissenkorn, who had enlisted the entire Histadrut organization to help Peretz’s campaign. The smug Nissenkorn and his people believed this would tip the scales. They celebrated and boasted prematurely. It turns out that not all Labour members in the Histadrut felt obliged to follow the orders of a chairman whose own method of getting elected is still under investigation.

Signs of Monday’s upset in the Labour Party were already evident on the night of July 4, last Tuesday, when the results of the first round were announced. Peretz came in first, but he beat Gabbay by only five percentage points – around 2,000 votes. That was a huge achievement for Gabbay and reason for Peretz to worry: Despite his long experience of competing in party contests and support not just from the Histadrut, but also from a long list of prominent Knesset members and many mayors, he didn’t manage to rout the green, somewhat naïve tyro who lacked all those advantages.

Final results of Labour primary

The second round proved something else: The party that never gives anyone a second chance once again refused to give a former party leader a second chance (granted, Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak managed to stage comebacks, but they were both former prime ministers).

The fact that the defeated incumbent, Isaac Herzog, and another defeated candidate, MK Erel Margalit both backed Peretz gave off a sour smell of affront and anger at the brazen newcomer who dared to crash their party. Even torture couldn’t extract a good word about Peretz from either Herzog or Margalit. Yet they closed ranks with him to build a wall against the rising star, only to see it collapse under the weight of the masses. The old boys received an unequivocal message from the voters: Wake up, your time has passed.

In contrast, MK Shelly Yacimovich, who unsurprisingly backed Gabbay against their shared rival, Peretz, is entitled to bask in sweet victory, whose taste she had long since forgotten. She can certainly take some of the credit for his achievement. The vast majority of her activists and volunteers joined Gabbay’s campaign back in the first round, and even more so in the second.

It will be interesting to see what happens now in the Knesset. Herzog is expected to resign as opposition leader, and indeed ought to do so after backing Peretz. Since Gabbay, not being an MK, can’t take over the job himself, Yacimovich is the natural candidate to do so.

Who else was celebrating on Monday? Ehud Barak, who had publicly backed Gabbay from the very start of the race. Barak longs to return to political life. Given Gabbay’s complete lack of experience in national security and diplomacy, adding Barak to his leadership team could benefit both of them, in the right circumstances.

And who was gnashing his teeth? Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon. The Kulanu party chairman – who felt betrayed, with some justice, by his partner Gabbay in establishing that party, who quit the cabinet to protest against Avigdor Lieberman’s appointment as defence minister – had expected Gabbay to lose, to be brought down by his disloyalty.

But this was always more wishful thinking than sober political analysis. It turns out that loyalty is for the weak.

Gabbay said during his campaign that he was the only candidate capable of bringing Kulanu voters over to Labour. That has yet to be proven, but Kahlon now finds himself in an uncomfortable position. This political development could actually strengthen his weak ties with Netanyahu.

The same goes for Yair Lapid. Before the new Labour chairman can take on Likud, he must first return most of the voters – 10 to 12 Knesset seats’ worth – who abandoned Labour for Lapid’s Yesh Atid party. This is the first critical hurdle that Gabbay must pass before he can start fantasizing about replacing the government.

The polls in the coming days and weeks will provide an indication of the future. If the voters don’t return, and quickly, Gabbay will start circulating among his new party colleagues with a target on his back. They won’t hesitate to seal his fate, and they won’t wait long to do it.

Avi Gabbay hailed as ‘Israel’s Macron’ after Labour leadership win

Millionaire businessman, who has little political experience, becomes party head after runoff with ex-leader Amir Peretz

By Peter Beaumont in Jerusalem, The Guardian
July 11, 2017

A relative political unknown has swept to a shock victory to become head of Israel’s opposition Labour party and one of the main candidates to challenge the long serving rightwing prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, in future elections.

The emergence of Avi Gabbay, 50, a nonchalant businessman who burst onto Israel’s political scene, immediately drew comparisons to the French president, Emmanuel Macron, from some commentators, while others suggested it was the latest chapter in the once dominant party’s long decline.

Gabbay was elected leader on Monday night after two rounds of voting in which he defeated first the party’s incumbent head and official opposition leader, Isaac Herzog, and then former leader and favourite Amir Peretz, who had the backing of Israel’s main trade union body.

A self-made millionaire and former head of the Israeli telecoms company Bezeq, Gabbay is a Mizrahi – or eastern Jew – the child of Moroccan Jewish immigrants who grew up in a transit camp, overturning the long dominance in the Labour party of Ashkenazi Jews who resettled from Europe.

Gabbay will serve as the party’s head and candidate for prime minister but cannot be leader of the opposition as he is not a member of parliament.

His election comes amid dismal recent polling for the party that dominated Israel in its first decades of statehood, but has been largely eclipsed as the country’s electorate moved right under Netanyahu.

The high turnout surprised many, with commentators wondering whether Labour’s desire for a fresh face might be reflected more widely in an Israeli society that has become jaded by the scandals and moribund politics surrounding Netanyahu.

Gabbay has no high-level security experience, usually regarded as a prerequisite for high office in Israel. He has also flipped between membership of the centre-right Kulanu party and serving briefly – if almost invisibly – as an environment protection minister in Netanyahu’s coalition, before quitting and joining Labour.

However in his campaign, Gabbay managed to secure the support of former Labour leader and the party’s last prime minister Ehud Barak who hailed his victory as a “revolution” on his Facebook page, adding that Netanyahu would be “sweating tonight, with good reason”.

The question now is whether Gabbay can attract the support of working-class Mizrahi voters who Netanyahu and his Likud party have long counted on to stay in office.

Mizrahi Jews, many of whom arrived in Israel in 1950s, believe they were treated as second-class citizens by the Ashkenazi elite that dominated Labour, prompting them to vote Likud or other rightwing parties, even when Amir Peretz – also a Mizrahi – led Labour.

Although Gabbay and his often young supporters have presented his victory as a “revolution”, Gabbay’s policies appear less mould-breaking, favouring a resumption of talks with the Palestinians and halting construction outside the main Jewish settlement blocs.

Gabbay, however, is opposed to unilateral withdrawal from the occupied Palestinian territories, while his position on religions in schools and shabbat observance is equally middle of the road in an Israel that has become more right wing and observant.

Commenting on his win in Yedioth Ahornoth, veteran columnist Nahum Barnea said Israeli politics had “never known a victory such as this one” by an individual “unknown to most of the public just a few months ago.”

However, Ben Caspit, writing in Maariv, was more cautious: “Should Benjamin Netanyahu and Yair Lapid be concerned? It is too soon to tell. Bibi has no real cause for concern.

“If Gabbay thinks that he will sweep Likud voters with talk about social democracy,” he is wrong. “If he believes that daydreams about ‘peace’ will bring the voters home, the same is true. Someone has to let him know that the people of Israel have taken a sharp right turn.”

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