Labor’s unconventional new leader
Labor, long dismissed by pundits as the sick man of Israeli politics, has risen from its bed.
The Labor party dominated Israeli politics during the Jewish state’s first three decades, and the Zionist movement for another 17 years before that, but has not held power since 2001. It has now been taken over by a chairman who had only joined the party a few months ago, and also conceded to having once voted for its archrival, and the beneficiary of its historic decline, Likud.
New party chairman Avi Gabbay’s novelty – or dislocation, as some charge – lies not only in his lack of partisan roots, but also in his political virginity and unique professional identity as a corporate executive and self-made millionaire.
Excusing his vote last decade for Likud, the 50-year-old Gabbay said he voted not for the nationalist party, but for its leader at the time, Ariel Sharon, whose heroism as a commando he was raised to admire.
Gabbay’s unusual admission followed a clumsy denial attempt that was quickly refuted by a video of a forgotten TV interview from years ago in which he admitted the one-time vote for Likud. Even so, the confession to something which once amounted to blasphemy in Labor circles did not meaningfully hurt him in the polls.
Having emerged second among five candidates in the first round of Labor’s leadership primary – and thus helped unseat previous party leader Isaac Herzog – Gabbay then faced off with former defence minister Amir Peretz. He handed Peretz a 52% to 48% defeat in a runoff election in which 30,500 party members participated.
It had been but seven months since he had joined the Labor Party and eleven since he still served as Binyamin Netanyahu’s Environment Minister on behalf of the centre right Kulanu party.
Even back then, when he first took his seat at the cabinet table, Gabbay was largely anonymous, the least known minister in the entire government. What, then, got him where he is now, and where does his improbable path lead?
The seventh of eight children, Avi Gabbay was born three years after his parents set sail to Israel from Morocco, initially living in a two-bedroom tin shack in an immigrants’ camp on what then was Jerusalem’s Jordanian border.
It was almost as low as one could start socially in Israel at the time, but Gabbay seems to have emerged from the experience without a grudge. On the contrary, having been identified by age 10 as a gifted child, he says he is grateful to Israel for having placed him in a special scholastic track that gave him special courses, and eventually landed him in an elite high school. “A special cab,” he recently reminisced, “would take me from my home to things like a special meeting with a leading novelist.”
Gabbay would now make the most of the boost he got onto Israel’s ladder of social mobility, proceeding through three of the Israeli elite’s most time-honoured hothouses of achievement.
The first was Gimnasya Rehaviah, the elite high school in central Jerusalem whose graduates include famous literati, professors, judges, generals and politicians. The second was the IDF’s elite intelligence unit 8200, which produces many leaders of Israel’s technology industry, and where Gabbay reached the rank of major. And the third – following economics and business degrees he earned at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University – was the post-graduation job he landed with the Israeli Treasury’s Budget Department, from which many proceed into Israel’s corporate elite.
Gabbay made the most of this springboard.
Assigned with overseeing spending in the Communications Ministry, he left the public service after four years and leapt to the other side of the industrial divide, joining Bezeq, Israel’s leading telecommunications giant, which he had previously helped regulate and oversee.
That alone was a proverbial landmark for the then-32-year-old Gabbay, whose father had been an auto-mechanic in the very company where his son was now a senior assistant to the Director-General.
Yet Gabbay’s climb had hardly begun. Eight years on, after stints as Director of Personnel, Director of Strategy, and director of the long-distance calls subsidiary, he was appointed Director-General of Bezeq, at the time a company with 15,000 employees and a market value of roughly US$5 billion.
By the time he left that position six years later, Gabbay had reportedly amassed the pre-tax shekel equivalent of US$15 million in cumulative salaries, bonuses and options. It was then that the upwardly mobile man who had already reached one of the most powerful positions in the Israeli economy at age 40, veered from business into politics, where at 50 he is now determined to unseat and succeed the prime minister.
For Labor, this turn of events was until recently unthinkable. Labor’s seven prime ministers were of two types: Zionist pioneers of the pre-state period, or products of the post-1948 defence establishment. A corporate businessman was unthinkable – until now.
Yet Gabbay won the admiration of Labor activists when he voted against the government’s master plan for Israel’s newfound, offshore gas fields. In his view, the plan – which has since been passed and come into effect – created an anti-consumerist, private monopoly. As Environment Minister, his sharp cuts to the usage of coal by Israel’s Electric Corporation also won him kudos among liberals. Yet what positioned him firmly on Labor’s side of the map was his resignation last year from Netanyahu’s cabinet.
Citing what he described as Netanyahu’s unjustified removal of Moshe Yaalon as Defence Minister, Gabbay attacked his replacement by the controversial Avigdor Lieberman. “I can’t be a part of this,” he said at the time, explaining that the new appointment would aggravate Israel’s political divisions.
Having then begun to attract national attention, Gabbay soon made it clear that he favours a two-state solution, fears the emergence of a de-facto binational state, opposes unilateral withdrawals, would freeze settlement construction but only outside the main settlement blocks, and would relinquish Jerusalem’s Arab neighborhoods in the framework of a deal with the Palestinian Authority.
In terms of his positions, then, Gabbay is a pragmatic dove and an economic social democrat, all of which Labor activists tally as on the plus side of his ledger sheet. On the minus side, some deride him as a corporate executive who fired hundreds while pocketing fat salaries during several rounds of Bezeq cutbacks designed to satisfy shareholder demands.
Gabbay’s position as Labor chairman is also abnormal because he is not a member of parliament and, in fact, wasn’t one even when he was a cabinet member, a rare arrangement in Israel.
This means he cannot be appointed official Opposition Leader, a prestigious position which entails a minister’s salary, monthly briefings with the prime minister, meetings with visiting prime ministers and presidents, and addressing the Knesset plenary after the prime minister speaks on certain special occasions.
For Labor, however, this unusual situation is as exciting as it is perplexing – some there feel this anomalous state should be seen as a side-effect of the mental shakeup it must undergo if it is to shed its self-image as a perennial-loser.
Indeed, having last won a general election 18 years ago, and having since been elbowed aside not only by Likud, but also by a succession of centrist parties, Labor hopes its unorthodox choice of leader may finally break the jinx.
Yet for that to happen, Labor will have to find a way to win back the swing votes it lost in the wake of the violence that followed the Oslo Accords that it masterminded. If Gabbay has such a formula, he has yet to make it public.
Similarly, it is doubtful the economic plan Gabbay has unveiled will impress voters outside Labor’s narrow voting bloc. In a display of overarching spending ambitions, Gabbay said he would build 300,000 apartments in public-housing plans; more than double the salaries of combat soldiers; add 100 billion shekels to infrastructure development; extend the school day; raise handicapped and elderly allowances – the list of social goodies goes on and on. What it lacks so far is any serious discussion of how all this spending will be financed, a flaw that middle class voters are prone to detect, and resent.
Then again, Gabbay may be deliberately leaving the middle class for a future assault, in order to first storm the working-class voters that Labor had lost to Likud even before the 1993 Oslo Accords.
In the peripheral towns and poorer urban suburbs, Gabbay can expect to win the kind of respect most Labor leaders haven’t enjoyed there since the days of Golda Meir. Descendants of Middle Eastern immigrants may well look at Gabbay and say three things: he is one of us; he made it big; and he cares for us.
In ordinary times, fielding a prime ministerial candidate who has never been even a backbencher or deputy mayor would have been dismissed as political suicide. But times are not ordinary. With Donald Trump challenging America’s political conventions, Jeremy Corbyn remaking British Labour, and Emmanuel Macron replacing France’s entire political establishment – the attempt by Israel’s Labor party to put forward its own Macron is neither farfetched nor chimerical.