Last Monday, Labor members narrowly elected Avi Gabbay, who was not even a member of the Party eight months ago, as their new leader. Seasoned pundits did not expect the win by Gabbay, who rose from a working-class Moroccan family to run Israel’s largest telecommunications company. His election could help Labor close its gap with working-class Israelis. The morning after Gabbay’s win, polls showed support for Labor surging, and Party loyalists grasped that Gabbay might have been sent over by central casting. “It’s already clear,” Haaretz editorialized, thirty-six hours after the win, that Gabbay “has breathed new life into the party.” Fifty years old, balanced, affable, and gregarious, Gabbay projects the gravitas one sensed in Barack Obama during the 2008 primaries. Labor jumped to a projected twenty-four Knesset seats (out of a hundred and twenty) in opinion polls, surpassing the vaguely centrist Yesh Atid Party of Yair Lapid, where many liberals were parking their votes as long as Labor was run by Gabbay’s predecessor.
Gabbay was educated at Israel’s élite Hebrew University, yet he speaks like a man who, though comfortable with street talk, learned early on to weigh his words and go meta on public problems. His acceptance speech seemed to take a page out of Obama’s 2008 playbook: a good-news challenge to skeptics, delivered with liturgical cadences: “To all who doubted the indispensability of Israeli democracy; to all who doubted Labor as alive, kicking, and renewing; to all who believed Israelis had lost their hope for change . . . to all these people, the answer is this night”—in Hebrew, ha’lila ha’zeh, a familiar refrain from the Passover Seder. It is time for the government to think, he rhymed, of “Dimona, not Amona”—that is, on behalf of the struggling towns in the Negev Desert, not settler outposts in the West Bank.
But the parallel with Obama ends there. Gabbay’s story is not that of an unlikely minority candidate who organized at the grassroots. He is the unlikely majority candidate who climbed to the apex of Israel’s biggest telecommunications company. One of eight children, Gabbay grew up in an “asbeston,” a makeshift structure in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Talpiot, in a transit camp designed to absorb Jewish refugees and immigrants. As a Jew of Mizrahi, or Middle Eastern, background, Gabbay was born into Israel’s Jewish underclass, a group that outnumbered the country’s Ashkenazi, or European, Jewish population, but was nevertheless mostly shut out of the economic, cultural, and political élite. An obviously gifted child, Gabbay was recruited to the prestigious (read, German-Jewish) Gymnasia Rehavia, and went on to become an intelligence officer in the Army. He then attended Hebrew University, beginning his career, in the mid-nineties, in the budget department of the Finance Ministry, then in Labor’s hands.
In 1999, Gabbay joined Bezeq, the government telephone utility, where his father had worked. Bezeq was privatized in 2005, and then found itself in the turbulent world of legacy communications companies trying to shift to Internet service. Gabbay rose from assistant to the C.E.O. to C.E.O. in just ten years. From 2007 to 2013, he presided over the sprawling company and implemented many changes, including headcount reductions, and benefitted handsomely from spikes in its stock price. Yet Gabbay also gained a reputation as an effective and humane manager, and retired with enough money, he says, to focus on policy. Before the 2015 election, he helped to start Kulanu, a populist party that appealed to struggling lower-middle-class families, largely Mizrahim, and focussed on the high cost of living. Kulanu won ten Knesset seats and became a crucial member of Netanyahu’s coalition—and Gabbay, though not a member of the Knesset, was rewarded with the Environment Ministry. Partnering with Likud was not unusual for Gabbay. During the early two-thousands, he had voted for Ariel Sharon. He was not alone. Mizrahi families have been the driver of Likud victories since the Party’s first national victory, in 1977.
In the period leading up to that historic election, particularly the fifties and early sixties, the vast majority of Israel’s Mizrahim arrived as immigrants and refugees. In countries stretching from Morocco to Iraq, the collapse of colonialism and the birth of the Jewish state had left them exposed to unexpected persecution; they abandoned businesses and friends in heartbreaking haste. Educated or affluent Mizrahim mostly went not to Israel but to France; of the eight hundred thousand who did immigrate to Israel, most found themselves subordinated to the Ashkenazi establishment, long the base and beneficiary of the Labor Party.
At first, founding Labor leaders like David Ben-Gurion attracted Mizrahi loyalty, though the Party often condescended to them as culturally deprived. (As recently as the 2015 election, the leftist painter Yair Garbuz publicly dismissed Likud’s Mizrahi voters as “amulet kissers”—an Israeli version of Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables.”) After the catastrophic Yom Kippur War, in 1973, Likud’s Menachem Begin—himself the product of the Ashkenazi petit bourgeoisie—won over Mizrahi voters with speeches vilifying the Labor aristocracy, and projecting a love of traditional Jewish family rites, not the secularism of Zionist pioneers. By then, many Mizrahim had made it in retail, car repair, or real estate. Their children had become lawyers, police officers, and contractors; rates of intermarriage with Ashkenazi families were high. Yet Mizrahim remained hungry for status, and supporting Likud became a form of protest—and identity.
Mizrahim still struggle economically. Tens of thousands have only menial employment in Jerusalem, where the price of housing is prohibitive, or remain unemployed in neglected cities and development towns such as Dimona. Many still feel they have a score to settle with “the Arabs.” Mizrahim who have risen in Labor, like Amir Peretz, a former Party leader whom Gabbay defeated in this year’s primaries, did so as veterans of Israel’s central labor federation, the Histadrut, or the Army—not by having made an independent career in the private sector.
In key ways, Gabbay is the Party’s first chance in two generations to remake the country’s political map. Even if the Party merely siphons off seven of Kulanu's ten seats, a center-left bloc led by Labor could achieve as many Knesset seats as the Likud bloc; Gabbay also has the potential, however, to take votes from Likud directly, and from Shas, a right-wing religious Mizrahi party and Likud ally. Adding to his appeal, particularly at a time when some of Netanyahu’s closest associates are embroiled in a scandal over a sketchy deal for German-made naval vessels, Gabbay enjoys a reputation for the kind of personal integrity that swing voters might admire.
In his acceptance speech last week—embellishing things, perhaps, but suggesting his future line of attack—Gabbay implied that he had left the government in part because “those who conduct the Prime Minister’s coalition negotiations should not be agents for a German submarine company.”
Meanwhile, he has made clear that he would welcome dialogue with the President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, and would consider Palestinian sovereignty in Arab neighborhoods of an administratively united Jerusalem. Gabbay’s emergence might well bring about the consolidation of a center-left Knesset opposition, which even the leader of the Arab Joint List, Ayman Odeh, has been pushing for. (“We must build a new ‘democratic camp,’ ” Odeh told me.)
Gabbay may yet prove to have skeletons in his closet. The director-general of the Communications Ministry and Bezeq’s current chairman and largest shareholder—both Netanyahu confidants—were recently accused by the state comptroller of collusion, allowing Bezeq to maintain a near monopoly on broadband infrastructure and integrate with content providers. Who knows what Gabbay knew before he retired? Nevertheless, he has become the story and symbol of a new path to power for Labor. For decades, the Party has suffered from the same time type of disconnect from working-class voters that now seems to plague the Democratic Party in the U.S.
Gabbay is trying to bring that dynamic to an end. His crack about Dimona superseding Amona summarizes the heart of his appeal. Before Gabbay, Mizrahim who disapproved of Likud’s support for settlers and the ultra-religious struggled to find common ground with Labor’s Ashkenazi élites, intellectual socialists, and union hacks. Gabbay, the former kid from a transit camp who rose to run an iconic corporation, might bridge the gap. As in all democracies, voters who feel the greatest economic stress are the least likely to read patiently through the policy arguments that more highly educated voters respect; they need to identify with a candidate—and, on rare occasions, even to trust and like him. In this, Gabbay’s election may be a lesson for American Democrats as well.
Author: Bernard Avishai