Gabbay, the New Israeli “Labor Party” Leader: Will He Oust Netanyahu ?

Prof. As’ad Abdul Rahman

It should be recalled, following  the recent election of Avi Gabbay as the new leader of Israel’s Labor Party, that this socialist bloc described as leftist dominated politics for long decades soon after the establishment of the ‘state’ of Israel until the rightist came to power at the height of the 1977 general elections better known as the ‘Likud coup’.

It is well known that the Labor party led Israel’s expansionist wars since 1948, through 1956, 1967 and 1973 while strengthening and expanding the Israeli military and security complex as well as developing the then growing nuclear arsenal.  Today, in the shadow of the most extreme right-wing government in Israel’s history, many may believe that its leader Benjamin Netanyahu is not the right person to deal with regional changes, exploit successive opportunities, and “reach” a final political settlement with the other Arab states especially that direct or semi-direct dealing of certain Arab leaders with Israel is no longer embarrassing in the region!

The victory of the former businessman Gabbay (a Jew of Moroccan origin) was significant after beating his rival Amir Peretz by 52.4% to 47.6% of the vote. The party leader Isaac Herzog lost the election in the first round after being sharply criticized for attempting to negotiate for the party to partner with Netanyahu’s extreme right-wing “Likud coalition”. Gabbay, who once served in the “coalition”, resigned in May 2016 over the appointment of the extreme right fanatic Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the Israel Beitunu party, accusing the ruling coalition of “leading Israel to destruction”.

Upon declaring victory, Gabbay announced the drive to unseat Netanyahu pledging to win the next general election. He said “The State of Israel is headed to elections, but we don’t know the date yet. The party needs at least 100 thousand members by the next elections, nearly twice its current number, in order to win 30 (Knesset) seats and replace the government of Netanyahu”. In an interview with the Ynet news website, he said: “my positions are the positions of the Labor party, two states for two peoples”. Gabbay, however, added that “Jerusalem will remain unified in any scenario and there will be no negotiations about it”. All said, and contrary to Likud’ position, he affirmed that “the Palestine Authority President Mahamud Abbas is certainly a peace partner”.

Interestingly enough, only a day after Gabbay won the Labor leadership, a few months after joining it, two public opinion polls conducted by the Israeli Channels T.V. Two and Ten showed that the Labor party had strengthened its power ahead of the ‘There is a Future’ party headed by Knesset member Yair Lapid. According to the Channel 2 poll, if the Israeli general elections are held now, the Likud will win 25 seats, Labor 20, There Is A Future 18 seats, the Jewish Home headed by the most extreme minister of education Naftali Bennett 13 seats, and Yisrael Beitunu, 6 seats. The Channel Ten poll shows that if elections are held now, Likud will win 13 seats, Labor 24, there is a Future 16, the Jewish Home 14 and Yisrael Beitunu 7 seats. Those figures point to a less rightist trend than that of the present ruling coalition, which explains the results of the polls. Gabbay’s victory marks a dramatic change for Israelis indicating that other options are available, other than Netanyahu. The new young Labor leader beat the older historic leaders of the party reflecting the Israeli society’s desire for change. In this context, Haaretz political journalist Yossi Verter says: “Gabbay’s victory was made possible by the electoral, popular and propaganda lowest level to which the labor party had deteriorated into. The party needed an electric shock, and this is what happened”.

Gideon Rahat, professor of political science in the Hebrew University in Jerusalem says in comments about Gabbay’s election that “there are two explanations, one is ‘despair’ and the other is the ‘personal policy’ where the personality is more important than the political one”. Political analyst Avraham Diskin describes Gabbay as “a new face, highly eloquent, determined and very intelligent who was not a member of the Labor party but a person who symbolizes hope”.

To categorize the Israeli political parties in terms of right and left is rather misleading. The Labor party, ideologically leftist, believes like other rightist parties in the ‘value’ of Jewish colonization/ settlement, that Jerusalem should be united as the capital of Israel and that the 1948 Palestinian refugees cannot return home. This ‘leftist’ party was the first to implant the Separtist Wall in the heart of the West Bank. But with the extremist right beginning to alienate the regional and world communities as a result of its practices against the Palestinian people, it is normal to see the impact of its policies on the Israelis, which allows people like Gabbay to win and to provide him with the chance to unseat Netanyahu if he knows how to invest well in it.