By Dow Marmur
Jerusalem (July 11, 2017) – When Israel’s Labor Party announced that its members would vote this month to elect a leader of the party, some ten people indicated that they’d stand against the incumbent Isaac Herzog. Hostile cynics commented that this might have been the total party membership. In fact, there’re more than fifty thousand card carrying members and the party got some 750,000 votes in the last general election, which gave it 19 out of the 120 members of the Knesset
In the end five candidates stayed in the race. None of them got the required minimum percentage of votes and a second round was held on July 10. Herzog came in third in the first round and was thus eliminated. Nice man though he is — and a “prince”: the son of a former president and a grandson of a former chief rabbi — it appears that he doesn’t have what it takes to be a sufficiently successful politician in today’s Israel. Some people believe that this speaks in his favour.
The race was now between Amir Peretz, a veteran party members who was at its helm at some point in the past and had been a minister in the government. He’s also a former trade union head and a former mayor of his home town of Sderot on the Gaza border.
The other candidate was Avi Gabbay, who had only recently joined the party. He has a right of centre political background and a lot of experience as an administrator and business man, but no roots in the Labor party.
What was new is that none of the finalists was Ashkenazi. In the past Ashkenazim dominated but no longer. Peretz was born in Morocco and came to Israel as a child. Gabbay’s large family is also Moroccan; he himself was born in Jerusalem.
Though two candidates who didn’t make it to the second round declared their support for Peretz, Gabbay won with a margin of some five percent. This suggests that the party is shedding its traditional socialist image to become a centrist alternative to Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid. As Yesh Atid has been seen of late as capable of challenging Netanyahu’s Likud, the election of Gabbay may be of national and historic significance. Herzog would probably never become prime minister; Gabbay might.
Labor was the party of David Ben Gurion, Israel’s founding father. But in 1977, almost 30 years after the establishment of the state, Menachem Begin — the leader of the right-wing nationalist party Likud, then still with Liberal tendencies — became prime minister. There have been Labour prime ministers since (Rabin, Peres, Barak), but for the last decade or so the country has moved further to the right and Binyamin Netanyahu has been the prime minister.
Analysts suggest that Gabbay may replace him relatively soon, not as the leader of a left-wing socialist party but as a more liberal alternative (he was a co-founder of the Kulanu party, led by former Likud member Moshe Kahlon, now minister of finance). Both Lapid and Netanyahu are, therefore, said to view the emergence of Gabbay as bad news. But traditional left-wingers have no reason to celebrate; they’ll have to continue to vote for the socialist Meretz party.
Is it too early to say if it is good news for the country. But being the new, very personable kid on the block, enough Israelis may vote for Gabbay, if for no other reason than that he’s neither Netanyahu nor Lapid – and, alas equally important, not a socialist.