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Israeli Labor Party's new leader challenged from right, left

Newly elected Israeli Labor Party chair Avi Gabbay faces huge challenges, including competing with the Yesh Atid party for center-right votes and defeating popular Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Avi Gabbay’s election as chairman of the Labor Party on July 10 has renewed the battle for the leadership of the center-left bloc with Yair Lapid, the chairman of Yesh Atid. While Gabbay declared on the night of his surprising election that his win is the start of the journey to replace Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the road there is very long, and it passes through Lapid’s parliamentary seats.

Gabbay’s first success in this journey is returning Labor to the top of the center-left camp in polls conducted immediately after the primaries. His party shot up past Yesh Atid and theoretically would "win back" several of the seats that have gradually shifted in polls to Yesh Atid since the 2015 election. As for voters from the right-wing bloc, so far Gabbay has succeeded in moving just a few of them, mostly from his former patron Moshe Kahlon, the chairman of the Kulanu Party.

The polls were published on the leading news channels a day after Gabbay’s victory, and they got dramatic headlines. But if you factor in the enthusiasm for the new and relatively anonymous player who took over the Labor Party with hardly any political experience, you see that there’s no significant change in the division of the right-wing and left-wing blocs. Netanyahu, despite a slight decline in the polls, is still the man expected to lead the largest party in Israel in the next election, and the only one who could put together a coalition.

According to Channel 2’s poll, the Likud would win 25 seats, the Zionist Union (composed of the Labor Party and the Hatnua Party) headed by Gabbay would win 20 seats and Yesh Atid 18. In Channel 10’s poll, the Likud would win 29 seats, the Zionist Union 24, and Yesh Atid only 16. In response to the question of who is best suited to be prime minister, Netanyahu ranked significantly ahead of Gabbay and Lapid, who came in about even.

In both polls, the Zionist Union and Yesh Atid put together would get almost a similar number of seats: 38 according to Channel 2 and 40 according to Channel 10. Thus the drama is currently happening within the center-left bloc, and it seems Lapid has a big challenge here. The chairman of Yesh Atid had climbed up to 26 seats in a Channel 2 poll conducted in March, overtaking Netanyahu and threatening his position as prime minister.

Also notable in this week’s polls is Netanyahu’s durability, at least for now, in face of the implications of the criminal investigations of him. The investigation of the episode of the purchase of submarines from Germany, labeled Case 3000, moved another serious step forward on the day the poll was conducted. Netanyahu’s associate and confidant since the 1990s, attorney David Shimron, was questioned under warning on suspicion of involvement in the affair, in which submarines were allegedly purchased against the recommendation of the Ministry of Defense, for ulterior motives of commissions and brokerage fees. Netanyahu is not a suspect in this affair, but he is expected to testify.

The Labor Party, which has led the center-left bloc since the establishment of the state, has been challenged since the early 2000s by changing centrist parties that have come and gone. This is one of the reasons that the last election (2015) was the first time it surpassed 20 seats since the 1999 election — to a great extent thanks to the union with Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua Party — where votes moved mostly from Yesh Atid.

The center-left bloc behaves like a closed market. Seats shift between a changing center party and the Labor Party (or the Zionist Camp), and hardly any votes come from the soft right. Most of the votes won by the center party are called “shifting sands” in the political system, since they are not loyal to one party. Thus these parties could easily fall apart when the wind of public opinion blows in a different direction. The best example is Kadima, which in 2009 won 28 seats but crashed in 2013 with only two seats. The new centrist party, Yesh Atid, got 19 seats that year.

For the past two years, Lapid has run an exacting campaign that has winked to the right in order to break through the bloc’s boundaries and win new votes. He understood, correctly, that the road to the prime minister’s office passes through the Likud’s seats, but according to the polls, he has had little success so far. Now, to his dismay, he will have to return to battle within the center-left bloc.

This is precisely Gabbay’s huge challenge: On one side he’ll fight a very strong and popular prime minister from the Likud, and on the other side a stubborn opponent from his own camp.

The “Gabbay Effect” (Gabbay's defeat of incumbent and former Labor Party chairmen), as it is called by the pollsters, was expected. “Fresh” candidates usually get good results in the polls. Polls gave Gabbay’s rival in the runoff for Labor leadership, Amir Peretz, a predicted 30 seats after he was surprisingly elected to head the Labor Party in 2005, but the party won only 19 seats in the ensuing election. Most likely, in the next few days Gabbay will discover that the picture is much more complicated and grim than the flattering polls published this week. Within his party, known for internal battles, there will be those who will wait for him to stumble. Lapid will return fire and fight for the shifting seats. Kahlon won’t sit back, either, and he will hit Gabbay if he sees a significant bleeding of votes from Kulanu. There has been a complete break between the two men since Gabbay abandoned Kulanu to join the Labor Party. Kahlon is a cunning opponent, and he is still popular with the public.

Since he is not a member of Knesset, Gabbay can’t serve as the chairman of the opposition — an important position for someone shaping himself as an alternative to the prime minister. He will have to invent a new model as the head of the opposition among the public and the media, and overcome his lack of diplomatic, security and political experience.

Gabbay’s achievement in the Labor Party shows an ambitious and sophisticated man, hungry for success. Now his big test begins. He will have to fulfill his promise and win his party 30 seats, among other things, by taking in a significant number of votes from the Likud. Anything less would be a failure for him.

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