For years, Israel’s political system has been moving to the right, leaving an air of inevitability about the demise of the left and particularly of the Labor Party. Election after election, Likud has gained enough seats to form a coalition government with religious and nationalistic parties. It condemns Labor, which founded Israel and was the dominant party for the first three decades of the country’s existence, to the opposition benches.
Will this change with the recent election of Avi Gabbay as head of Labor? Not necessarily, but the primaries ignited a flicker of hope that the party’s fortunes, and those of the more liberal-progressive side of the political map, are about to change.
Commentators were quick to compare Gabbay to French President Emmanuel Macron. Gabbay is an outsider with only brief experience in frontline politics, but he is very personable. At 50, he had already experienced a very successful career as a businessman in the thriving telecommunications sector, accumulating considerable wealth, which leaves him more independent financially than most other Israeli politicians.
His election as Labor leader signals a watershed in the party’s history and the type of leaders it elected in the past. Gabbay was born in one of Jerusalem’s poorest neighborhoods to working-class Jewish emigrants from Morocco. This is the constituency Labor lost to Likud in the 1970s for being elitist-Ashkenazi (Jews who originated in Eastern Europe) and discriminating against Jews who arrived from the Middle East and North Africa.
This probably explains why his first and brief venture with politics was with Likud offshoot Kulanu, which was more concerned with social than international issues. Though he was not elected to Parliament, he was appointed after the 2015 election as environmental protection minister. But he resigned in protest at the ultra-right party Israel Beitenu being brought into the coalition government and its leader Avigdor Lieberman being appointed defense minister.
Defeating in the primaries a number of Labor veterans, including in the second round former party leader Amir Peretz, came as a surprise to most. The results sent a sobering message to Labor grandees of its members’ desire to depart from the past. Gabbay fits the bill of relative youth, authenticity, a self-made man of very impressive business credentials, and — significantly in Israel’s current political climate — not tainted by corruption.
Public opinion polls were instantly flattering, suggesting Labor was improving its showing in electoral pulling power but still lagging behind Likud. Nevertheless, it is an opportune moment for the center left to reassert itself.
Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay, who is neither a diehard peacenik nor from the security establishment, has an opportunity to reintroduce an argument for reaching out to the Palestinians on the basis that peace is the ultimate route to long-term security.
It might have lost elections, but it won the main social political arguments in Israel a long time ago. Gabbay is no traditional lefty, but those left behind by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Thatcherite economics can relate to him, his roots and route to success.
Israel, which was established on semi-socialist foundations, has the highest percentage of the population living below the poverty line in the West, and is third in terms of the gap between rich and poor. This is terrain in which someone who understands modern economics and has social consciousness can make a difference and translate it into support at the ballot box.
It will be more challenging for Labor under Gabbay to revive and galvanize the peace camp. Since the collapse of the Camp David peace talks in July 2000 and the outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising later that year, the camp has been electorally shrinking.
This represents one of the inherent paradoxes of the Israeli public’s attitude toward the peace process and a two-state solution. Most still express support for a final-status agreement based on a two-state solution, yet they vote for parties with no interest in such a solution.
Labor has been stuttering on this issue for way too long, wrongly believing that it could compete with the right, especially Netanyahu, on militarized security based on occupation and settlement, while advocating for peace based on historic compromise with the Palestinians. It resulted in an absurd and incoherent message, and many of its voters migrating to other parties.
Gabbay, who is neither a diehard peacenik nor from the security establishment, has an opportunity to reintroduce an argument for reaching out to the Palestinians on the basis that peace is the ultimate route to long-term security and ensuring that Israel is Jewish and democratic. Moreover, a major dividend of peace would be economic growth that would create the capacity to elevate poverty and reduce the unhealthy gap between rich and poor.
This may be the last chance for the left and center left to assert themselves on one of the most crucial challenges Israel is facing. If they fail again this time, they might discover that by the next opportunity, the horses of a just peace and economic justice will have bolted for good.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media.