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Game changer?

Will the promise of Avi Gabbay's unexpected election to head Labor bear fruit?

Something is finally moving in the Israeli political landscape. The election of Avi Gabbay as the new leader of the Labor party has reignited public interest in formal politics after a long period of dejection, frustration and studied indifference. A heated debate has developed during the past week over the meaning of the outcome of the Labor primaries. Is it — as government proponents insist — merely a shift in the identity of the person who stands at the helm of the largest opposition party? Is this a turning point that can upend the Netanyahu hegemony? Is it also the harbinger of a substantial change in the country’s socioeconomic and political direction?

These discussions are indicative of the fact that significant processes may be afoot. Where they will lead goes far beyond the capabilities of any particular individual. Newcomer Gabbay’s triumph over the malfunctioning Labor party machine will take on added meaning only if it connects to a myriad of diverse moves to stem the officially guided efforts at democratic slippage and congeals into a viable political alternative.

Avi Gabbay is, in many respects, an unlikely leader. He is a political novice with little (or no) experience in security or diplomacy. He does not look, speak or act like a seasoned public figure. Although he boasts a one-year stint as a minor minister (of the environment), he has never been elected to public office. His very short political record is dotted with multiple zig-zags (he comes from a Likud background, he is the brains behind the foundation of Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party which he abandoned barely a year after it won 10 seats in the 2015 elections, and he is still considered an outsider in party he now heads). In fact, he is the anti-image of the contemporary Israeli politician.

That, however, is precisely what makes him both intriguing and so attractive to broad sections of Israel’s diverse electorate. Avi Gabbay is a model of the successful contemporary Mizrahi. He hails from modest roots; he knows what it is to be a scholarship boy in one of the country’s most elite schools (Gymnasia Rehavia). He became an intelligence officer in the IDF and boasts degrees in economics and business administration from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Gabbay has extensive familiarity with both the civil service (starting in the budget department of the Ministry of Finance) and with the business community (rising to the head of the telecommunications giant, Bezeq). He is a self-made man who has accumulated an enviable record not in spinning words or in financing exits, but in earning top salaries for concrete results. His story speaks to the aspirations and dreams of many average Israelis.

Avi Gabbay is a regular guy with a stellar record. He has shown an unusual capacity to listen. He talks rather than preaches. He still possesses a modicum of humility. He obviously likes people. He exhibited courage by resigning from a government he couldn’t identify with (“I found it difficult to see the growing divisiveness in the country and the attacks on the IDF, the only institution that enjoys broad public support”) and showed considerable daring by running for the leadership of a party he had just joined.

His ordinary demeanor is as refreshing as it is different from that of his political rivals on the left as well as on the right. In brief, his non-establishment aura coupled with his personal solidity gives him a rare credibility amongst citizens fed up with seasoned politicians and their machinations. On the surface, then, Avi Gabbay is not just another slotted-to-fail Labor party leader.

The question is whether he is capable of ousting proven political pros like Binyamin Netanyahu and his fellow travelers Naftali Bennett and Avigdor Liberman by instituting a different kind of politics. There is no doubt that this is what he wants to do. Only a week ago, he proclaimed unequivocally that his election heralds the beginning of a new phase in Israeli politics. He spoke to unity as opposed to ongoing divisiveness, to the common rather than the sectoral good, to a commitment to the public and not to those who hold the reins of power. He consciously promises a stylistic and substantive alternative to three consecutive terms of increasingly populist nationalist overrule, and brings with him the hope that this objective is realizable.

Although Gabbay’s political form, to date, is distinct to the point of being refreshing, the content of his politics is still insufficiently clear. In broad strokes, his platform conforms to what is expected of any middle-of-the road politician in Israel today. Domestically, he underlines rational decision-making, an uncompromising battle against corruption in the corridors of power, a socially sensitive economic policy that seeks to contend with growing income inequalities, a massive housing drive and the elimination of inequitable subsidies to particular sectors at the expense of others. He speaks out against religion coercion and reaffirms — albeit in the most of general of terms — his commitment to full equality of all citizens of the country. He pledges to roll back recent anti-democratic legislation and to revive the principles of liberty, equality and justice enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence.

On matters of defense and foreign affairs, Gabbay joins the growing chorus favoring a two-state solution based on land swaps, in return for continued Israeli control of the large settlement blocks and detailed security arrangements. He favors divesting Jerusalem of Palestinian villages annexed to the metropolis in 1967 — although he advocates full Israeli sovereignty over the city. And he adopts a regional view of a long-term peace agreement rooted in a negotiated peace with the Palestinians and further economic (and ultimately diplomatic) arrangements with Israel’s neighbors.

There is nothing much new in what Gabbay offers, nor do his pronouncements delve deeply into the (oftentimes knotty) details that have hampered progress in the past. His policy directions, however, undeniably diverge from current patterns. And his image of an Israel at peace with its neighbors and itself is a far cry from the message transmitted by Israel’s current leaders.

Avi Gabbay brings with him a new climate of change and the prospect for a political turnaround in Israel. His election to lead the challenge to the present government is a promising antidote to the politics of despair and defensiveness that has prevailed in opposition circles in recent years. It may yet be given a significant push should some of the investigations against leading figures in the government (including the prime minister himself) ripen into criminal indictments. In these circumstances, Gabbay’s primary victory may yet turn out to be a turning point in the replacement of the current Likud administration.

The extent to which it also signals the institution of a viable long-term alternative to the present Israeli trajectory is another matter entirely. Such a possibility depends, first and foremost, on the formulation of a fuller vision for Israel’s tomorrow — drawing on an explicit set of guiding values. It also relies on a comprehensive and detailed strategy for its implementation. Such a strategy requires the careful cultivation of political allies both within the Labor party and in the wider democratic camp (although not necessarily their complete merger). In the ego-driven reality of the Israel’s fragmented political map, this will prove to be no easy feat, requiring unusual personal and political acumen.

The achievement of a popular alternative to the reigning populism is equally dependent on the capacity to build on growing grassroots’ discontent. This calls for a profound understanding of both the bottom-up outsider anti-elitist forces that laid the groundwork for a climate of introspection and intolerance as well as the insider top-down measures that have cemented the anti-democratic currents prevailing in the country. These insights are critical for transitioning from an identity-based nationalism to a citizen-based politics of inclusion. Here Avi Gabbay and his associates will have to nurture deep horizontal as well as vertical links.

Israeli politics are entering a fascinating phase containing serious prospects for renewal and change. At least from this perspective, the political scene is far more interesting than it had been until last week. It remains to be seen whether it can also be meaningful.

About the Author
Naomi Chazan is professor (emerita) of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A former Member of the Knesset and Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, she currently serves as a senior research fellow at the Truman Research Institute at the Hebrew University and the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.
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