Last night, hundreds of Labor party activists gathered in Tel Aviv to witness the results of the party’s leadership runoff. Activists broke out in tears of excitement as Avi Gabbay’s victory was announced, chanting the Hebrew word “Mahapach” – which has no exact English equivalent but means something between a turnaround and a revolution.
If you haven’t heard of Gabbay before, don’t worry, you’re not that out of the loop. He came out of near-anonymity, Macron-style. Of course, unlike French President Emmanuel Macron, his surprising rise came in the oldest political party in Israel, and, of course, it remains to be seen if he will make it all the way to the top.
Gabbay came from a humble background, growing up in Jerusalem with seven siblings, and moved up the corporate ranks to become CEO of Israel’s biggest telecom company, Bezek. He helped Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon found the Kulanu party, and was appointed Environmental Protection Minister without being an MK. When Netanyahu appointed Liberman as Defense Minister, Gabbay resigned from the government in disgust.
From Labor’s point of view, Gabbay’s ascent is revolutionary: Gabbay, a capitalist businessman and corporate manager, is miles away from the Labor party’s traditions and roots in socialism. Gabbay joined the Labor party only six months ago, but he succeeded in defeating the highly experienced and skilled apparatus of his rival, Amir Peretz. He promised to lead the party to “a dawn of a new day.” But there is still a long path until Gabbay rebuilds the Labor party to the level that it could be considered a real alternative to Netanyahu and the Likud.
Gabbay could turn into the Israeli version of the outsider who sweeps the political system off its feet. He is attempting to create a Trump or Macron effect. His outstanding achievement largely reflects the Labor party’s voters protest vote. Voters are opposed to the weak performance of their party as the lead opposition party. They are also concerned with the rotten and dirty handling of the party’s institutions and affiliates. Gabbay was the right person at the right time and he won the jackpot.
A big winner from Gabbay’s victory is former Party leader Shelly Yachimovich, who supported Gabbay in the first round quietly. In the second round, Yachimovich campaigned actively for Gabbay. After a series of political defeats – losing to Herzog in 2012 and losing the Histadrut elections last May – Yachimovich, and the large support camp that follows her, finally scored a victory. Another beneficiary of the Gabbay victory is Tzipi Livni. The alternate result – a Peretz victory – could have rattled Livni’s political existence and the unity of the Zionist Union. Once partners, Livni and Peretz are known for their current hostile relationship. The Livni – Peretz relationship has deteriorated even more in recent months as Peretz strongly opposed Livni’s plans to establish a center-left bloc and enact open primaries to elect its leader. Gabbay is much closer to Livni ideologically, even in terms of the audiences he addresses, and has left an opening for advancing her initiatives.
Since Gabbay is not an MK, someone else is going to have to be opposition leader. Gabbay said in the days before the runoff that he would like Isaac Herzog to remain in the position, even though Herzog supported Peretz. Contrary to reports that Herzog was insulted by the idea, his camp said today that Herzog isn’t ruling it out, and he and Gabbay are planning to meet to discuss it. Still, there are persistent rumors that Stav Shaffir, who supported Gabbay, is a leading candidate if Herzog doesn’t work out.
Outside of the Labor party, Gabbay’s victory also has many impacts: For many senior politicians, Gabbay’s innovative wind of change is not good news at all, and they will do anything to thwart it. First and foremost is Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid, who has been presenting himself as the alternative to Bibi in the past two years by stealing away Labor mandates. Gabbay will now be the new kid on the block and his first goal will be to bring back the disaffected voters. Another hot front is Gabbay’s former BFF, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, whom Gabbay abandoned last year when he resigned from the Kulanu party. Kahlon has already made it clear in recent days that he is not going to sit with Gabbay in any bloc or coalition. This attitude by Kahlon could significantly erode Gabbay’s ability to portray himself as a government alternative, and some insiders believe that this is only the beginning – and that Kahlon will not rest until he achieves revenge.
And finally, there is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the man who Gabbay aspires to replace. At this stage, Netanyahu has no real reason to fear. Polls show that Gabbay is still far from bringing the Zionist Union back to the 24 mandate peak of the last elections. In the meantime, Gabbay is mainly threatening Lapid. While Gabbay and Lapid fight over the same limited pool of left-center votes, Netanyahu and the Likud might only get stronger. On the other hand, if Gabbay’s victory is indeed inspired by the Trump or Macron effect, there can only be more surprises down the road, and his victory could eventually turn into Bibi’s nightmare.
No campaign would be complete without a little viral content, and Gabbay’s campaign is no exception. First we have Gabbay’s mother, whom he brought with him to a lot of campaign stops. Sara Gabbay has thoroughly charmed the public and seems to be a good testament to how “authentic” the candidate is. In an interview on Army Radio this morning, Gabbay’s mother talked about how he was always such a good boy, and always did so well in school! Gabbay has said that his mom is a Likud voter, and if he can get her to vote Labor, then he can attract four to five seats’ worth of Likud voters to the party. Gabbay’s mother, however, told Army Radio that she is voting Labor because that is where her son is. Too bad for Gabbay, he only has one mom, and her vote isn’t even worth one seat, let alone four to five. But maybe between those seven siblings, and their spouses, he has something going there. In an interview with Channel 1, Gabbay’s mom was asked if she can see her son as the next prime minister, and she answered no.
The second meme of the election is Gabbay’s weird hair. His coif is a bit messy, sort of undefined. It’s longer on top and shorter on the bottom, but not enough of a contrast to call it an undercut. Sometimes hair flops down onto his forehead; sometimes it’s a bit spiky. Anyway, when you Google Gabbay in Hebrew, one of the first terms on auto complete is “wig,” so clearly many people think his hair isn’t real. However, Dror Globerman, a host of a TV interview program, answered the question on everyone’s mind and tousled Gabbay’s hair, confirming that it is, indeed, real.
Meanwhile, the Likud is dealing with drama of its own. No, no one is seriously challenging Netanyahu at the moment. But the non-minister MKs seem to be breaking up into camps, with coalition whip David Bitan on one side, and House Committee chairman Yoav Kisch on the other. Kisch has been punished for rebelling against the coalition in the past, which is how he lost the coalition chairmanship to Bitan. But that hasn’t stopped Kisch from wielding the House Committee’s authority like his own personal whip. Kisch uses the Knesset’s procedural processes to punish and reward MKs. For example, when Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked went over his head and used her authority to rush a bill from Bayit Yehudi, Kisch announced that he will use his committee to block the party’s bills from ever being rushed again. And when the Knesset legal adviser said Kisch ally and Likud MK Miki Zohar’s committee can’t hold a meeting on men claiming women make up abuse complaints against them, because it’s not a topic covered by the Committee for Distributive Justice and Social Equality, Kisch used the House Committee to expand the purview of Zohar’s committee. Bitan – and possibly Bibi – decided they have had enough, and they took away a prestigious (at least within the Likud) position from Kisch. Previously, Kisch’s committee was in charge of working on the “Basic Law: Nation-State of the Jewish People,” but now there is going to be a special committee headed by yet another Likud MK, Amir Ohana, that will assume responsibility for that new law.