Finding a majority for left of Likud bloc

Articles from 1) NY Times and 2) Al Monitor

Avi Gabbay spoke after being voted in as the new leader of Israel’s main opposition party, Labour, on Monday. Photo by Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images

Israeli Labour Party Tries a New Leader: Gabbay, Self-Made Millionaire

By Isabel Kushner, NY Times
July 10, 2017

JERUSALEM — Avi Gabbay, a relative novice in Israeli politics, spent his early years in an asbestos hut in a transit camp, one of eight children of Moroccan immigrants, then became a millionaire. On Monday, he also became the chairman of the centre-left Labour Party, beating Amir Peretz, a Moroccan-born party veteran, in a runoff.

Mr. Gabbay’s victory is not likely to pose an imminent threat to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of the conservative Likud Party, now serving his third consecutive term in office. The Labour Party has not won a general election in 18 years. Currently leading the parliamentary opposition, the party has been polling third after Likud and the centrist Yesh Atid party in recent months.

But the extraordinary rise of Mr. Gabbay, 50, is expected to breathe new life into the historic but diminished labour movement. Having dominated politics here for almost three decades after Israel’s establishment in 1948, it was the political home of state builders like David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin.

The latest leadership race riveted many Israelis as it pitted old politics against new, and liberal forces against a deeply conservative government and a public that has been shifting rightward.

Tal Schneider, an independent Israeli political blogger, described the result as a “dramatic change” for the Labour Party. About 52,000 people were eligible to cast ballots, and, she said, “They chose someone totally new and somewhat unfamiliar to the public and the voters.”

Ehud Barak, a former Labour leader, prime minister and military chief of staff who strongly endorsed Mr. Gabbay and seems poised for a political comeback of his own, described Mr. Gabbay’s win as a “revolution in Labour.” Mr. Barak added that Mr. Netanyahu and his allies would be “sweating tonight, with good reason.”

Isaac Herzog, the departing Labour chairman who won the party 24 seats in the last election to the Likud’s 30, was knocked out last week in a first round of voting.

Some in the party have described the shake-up as “electrifying.”

Mr. Gabbay’s path to the Labour leadership has been unorthodox. Growing up in a Jerusalem transit camp, he was identified at a young age as a gifted student and was sent to school in an affluent neighbourhood of the city. His father was a technician.

He studied economics and business administration at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, served in the budget division of the Ministry of Finance and then went into business and rose to become the chief executive of Bezeq, Israel’s telecommunications monopoly, a post he held until 2013. He has been unapologetic about his earnings there of millions of dollars.

He then helped Moshe Kahlon, a former Likud minister, build Kulanu, a new centre-right party that joined Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition after the 2015 elections. Mr. Gabbay became the minister for environmental protection, but he quit after a year, saying that he did not like what he saw in government and that Mr. Netanyahu’s decision to replace his defence minister, Moshe Yaalon, with the ultranationalist Avigdor Lieberman as part of a political deal was too much to swallow.

Mr. Gabbay joined Labour about six months ago.

Addressing a hall filled with cheering supporters at 11 p.m. shortly after the results were in, Mr. Gabbay said, “To all those who rushed to eulogize the Labour Party as an alternative for the government, and to all those who thought the Israeli citizens had lost hope in change, to all those — tonight is the answer.”

“Tomorrow we will begin the journey to the hearts of good Israelis,” he added. “Israelis who believe in our ideology and values, but Israelis who, for decades, have not voted Labour.”

Mr. Gabbay and Mr. Amir Peretz, 65, from the immigrant town of Sderot near the border with the Gaza Strip, are both Mizrahi, or Eastern, Jews of Moroccan descent, and their leadership contest brought to the fore the debate over Israel’s identity and ethnic politics. Labour has always been identified with the old Ashkenazic elite who hailed from Europe.

This is not the first time a Mizrahi, or Sephardi, Jew has headed the Labour Party. Mr. Peretz led it for a period in the past, as did Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, an Iraqi-born politician. Both Mr. Peretz and Mr. Ben-Eliezer were also defence ministers.

Mizrahi Jews, who immigrated mostly in the 1950s, were resentful of the sometimes highhanded treatment by the Labour establishment, so many have traditionally voted for Likud or other right-wing or religious parties. Though Mizrahim make up roughly half of Israel’s Jewish population, and about a third of Israeli children are now born into mixed Mizrahi/Ashkenazic families, economic and educational gaps remain.

Despite hopes in Labour that Mr. Gabbay will be able to bring in new voters from sectors of the public that have long shunned the party, Mitchell Barak, an Israeli pollster and political commentator, said his surveys over the years showed that the Mizrahim consistently preferred Ashkenazi candidates for prime minister.

“There has not yet been a Sephardi prime minister,” Mr. Barak said, “and I don’t see one on the horizon.”

The next elections are scheduled for late 2019, though many Israeli governments do not last their full four-year terms.

Ron Cahlili, a Mizrahi documentary director and left-wing activist, said in a radio interview this week: “The role of a Mizrahi leader is not to be Mizrahi and to say I’m Mizrahi and I live in Sderot. The role of a Mizrahi leader is to reduce gaps between Mizrahim and Ashkenazim. Period.”

Israeli Labour Party’s new leader challenged from right, left

Newly elected Israeli Labour Party chair Avi Gabbay faces huge challenges, including competing with the Yesh Atid party for centre-right votes and defeating popular Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

By Mazal Mualem, trans. Aviva Arad, Al Monitor
July 12, 2017

Avi Gabbay’s election as chairman of the Labour Party on July 10 has renewed the battle for the leadership of the centre-left bloc with Yair Lapid, the chairman of Yesh Atid. While Gabbay declared on the night of his surprising election that his win is the start of the journey to replace Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the road there is very long, and it passes through Lapid’s parliamentary seats.

Gabbay’s first success in this journey is returning Labour to the top of the centre-left camp in polls conducted immediately after the primaries. His party shot up past Yesh Atid and theoretically would “win back” several of the seats that have gradually shifted in polls to Yesh Atid since the 2015 election. As for voters from the right-wing bloc, so far Gabbay has succeeded in moving just a few of them, mostly from his former patron Moshe Kahlon, the chairman of the Kulanu Party.





Photo of Avi Gubbay, AFP


The polls were published on the leading news channels a day after Gabbay’s victory, and they got dramatic headlines. But if you factor in the enthusiasm for the new and relatively anonymous player who took over the Labour Party with hardly any political experience, you see that there’s no significant change in the division of the right-wing and left-wing blocs. Netanyahu, despite a slight decline in the polls, is still the man expected to lead the largest party in Israel in the next election, and the only one who could put together a coalition.

According to Channel 2’s poll, the Likud would win 25 seats, the Zionist Union (composed of the Labor Party and the Hatnua Party) headed by Gabbay would win 20 seats and Yesh Atid 18. In Channel 10’s poll, the Likud would win 29 seats, the Zionist Union 24, and Yesh Atid only 16. In response to the question of who is best suited to be prime minister, Netanyahu ranked significantly ahead of Gabbay and Lapid, who came in about even.

In both polls, the Zionist Union and Yesh Atid put together would get almost a similar number of seats: 38 according to Channel 2 and 40 according to Channel 10. Thus the drama is currently happening within the centre-left bloc, and it seems Lapid has a big challenge here. The chairman of Yesh Atid had climbed up to 26 seats in a Channel 2 poll conducted in March, overtaking Netanyahu and threatening his position as prime minister.

Also notable in this week’s polls is Netanyahu’s durability, at least for now, in face of the implications of the criminal investigations of him. The investigation of the episode of the purchase of submarines from Germany, labelled Case 3000, moved another serious step forward on the day the poll was conducted. Netanyahu’s associate and confidant since the 1990s, attorney David Shimron, was questioned under warning on suspicion of involvement in the affair, in which submarines were allegedly purchased against the recommendation of the Ministry of Defence, for ulterior motives of commissions and brokerage fees. Netanyahu is not a suspect in this affair, but he is expected to testify.

The Labour Party, which has led the centre-left bloc since the establishment of the state, has been challenged since the early 2000s by changing centrist parties that have come and gone. This is one of the reasons that the last election (2015) was the first time it surpassed 20 seats since the 1999 election — to a great extent thanks to the union with Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua Party — where votes moved mostly from Yesh Atid.

The centre-left bloc behaves like a closed market. Seats shift between a changing centre party and the Labour Party (or the Zionist Camp), and hardly any votes come from the soft right. Most of the votes won by the centre party are called “shifting sands” in the political system, since they are not loyal to one party. Thus these parties could easily fall apart when the wind of public opinion blows in a different direction. The best example is Kadima, which in 2009 won 28 seats but crashed in 2013 with only two seats. The new centrist party, Yesh Atid, got 19 seats that year.

For the past two years, Lapid has run an exacting campaign that has winked to the right in order to break through the bloc’s boundaries and win new votes. He understood, correctly, that the road to the prime minister’s office passes through the Likud’s seats, but according to the polls, he has had little success so far. Now, to his dismay, he will have to return to battle within the center-left bloc.

This is precisely Gabbay’s huge challenge: On one side he’ll fight a very strong and popular prime minister from the Likud, and on the other side a stubborn opponent from his own camp.

The “Gabbay Effect” (Gabbay’s defeat of incumbent and former Labour Party chairmen), as it is called by the pollsters, was expected. “Fresh” candidates usually get good results in the polls. Polls gave Gabbay’s rival in the runoff for Labour leadership, Amir Peretz, a predicted 30 seats after he was surprisingly elected to head the Labour Party in 2005, but the party won only 19 seats in the ensuing election.

Most likely, in the next few days Gabbay will discover that the picture is much more complicated and grim than the flattering polls published this week. Within his party, known for internal battles, there will be those who will wait for him to stumble. Lapid will return fire and fight for the shifting seats. Kahlon won’t sit back, either, and he will hit Gabbay if he sees a significant bleeding of votes from Kulanu. There has been a complete break between the two men since Gabbay abandoned Kulanu to join the Labor Party. Kahlon is a cunning opponent, and he is still popular with the public.

Since he is not a member of Knesset, Gabbay can’t serve as the chairman of the opposition — an important position for someone shaping himself as an alternative to the prime minister. He will have to invent a new model as the head of the opposition among the public and the media, and overcome his lack of diplomatic, security and political experience.

Gabbay’s achievement in the Labour Party shows an ambitious and sophisticated man, hungry for success. Now his big test begins. He will have to fulfil his promise and win his party 30 seats, among other things, by taking in a significant number of votes from the Likud. Anything less would be a failure for him.


© Copyright JFJFP 2017