Labor Party Chairman Avi Gabbay barely had three days to enjoy the flattering polls that were released Nov. 1. The Hadashot Channel 2 poll gave the Labor Party under his leadership 21 seats, while the Channel 10 News poll gave it 19 seats. Meanwhile, both polls showed the Likud Party losing an average of 5 seats.
Pundits and commentators all complimented him for this achievement. Some even spoke about the strengthening of the left-wing bloc led by Gabbay and Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid, and of the possibility of bringing down the right-wing government. However, while the chairman of the Labor Party was reveling in his achievement, the two senior partners in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government — Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman — were coordinating a plot against Gabbay that would knock him to the political ground floor in a single blow.
In two separate interviews with two different news shows for Hadashot News Company Nov. 4, with just two hours in between, both men declared unequivocally that they would not be part of a government formed by Gabbay. "I will say it as clearly as I can: The Kulanu Party will not be a fig leaf for a left-wing government," Kahlon answered, when asked if he would sit in a coalition headed by Gabbay. "I am part of the national camp," he continued, "unlike the Labor Party or whatever happens to be leading it. I opposed the disengagement [from the Gaza Strip], and I support the land of Israel and a united Jerusalem. That is why I see no way for Kulanu to join the Labor Party's left-wing government."
Liberman called Gabbay "irrelevant" and said, "There were at least two parties — [his] Yisrael Beitenu and [Kahlon's] Kulanu — which would never join a coalition with Gabbay." He added, "It would be impossible to put together a coalition without these two parties. … He doesn't have a chance. The whole idea can be erased from the lexicon."
This political maneuver by two senior players in the Netanyahu government may have been painted in the ideological colors of opposition to the left-wing platform of the Labor Party, but for the most part it was driven by a very painful and personal vendetta. In contrast, in the 2015 election, not only did Kahlon refuse to reject the Zionist Camp (Labor is the major partner in the Zionist Camp alliance) led by Isaac Herzog, he even held preliminary meetings with Herzog before the election about the possibility of forming a coalition. Then, after the election, he prodded Netanyahu to bring the Zionist Camp into the government. In the case of Gabbay, it seems as if ideology can be flexible.
The fact is that Kahlon will never forgive Gabbay for abandoning Kulanu about a year after he was appointed to be one of the party's ministers, only to join the Labor Party.
And Liberman? He is just waiting to strike back at the political newbie who turned his resignation from the government in May 2016 into a protest against Liberman's appointment as defense minister after Moshe Ya'alon was deposed. After all, it was Gabbay who said, "This is a very grave decision. It is bound to foster extremism."
Kahlon and Liberman have maintained a very close relationship while they wait for the right time to take their revenge. It now looks like the time came, when Gabbay started to gather momentum after spending the past two weeks signaling to the right.
These coordinated statements by the finance and defense ministers should cause serious concern to the Labor Party chairman's campaign, despite all his efforts to draw votes from the right. Over the next days and weeks, Israel will learn how steep a price Gabbay paid by being branded so bluntly as the head of a left-wing party.
The immediate beneficiary of the blows that Gabbay received was his main rival in the center-left camp, Lapid. But Lapid has problems of his own, which could deny him any chance of forming a coalition. The ultra-Orthodox ban the possibility of an alliance with Lapid; they will not sit in a government with him.
The truth is that even before Kahlon and Liberman played their little game, the interpretation of the recent polls may have been too far-reaching. Attempts to present them as indicators of change or of some significant movement between the blocs were wishful thinking at best, and an attempt to manufacture headlines at worst.
Even if Gabbay and Lapid are worth 40 seats together, even if they could both form a government on paper, this really is not feasible as long as Kulanu and Yisrael Beitenu prefer to form a coalition with the Likud. They need the support of a 61-Knesset majority to form a government. Furthermore, for Gabbay or Lapid to form a government, they will have to cooperate in some way or other.
Common sense would say that if they would really want to bring down the Likud government, they will, in fact, work together. The problem is that the whole scenario is just a pipe dream. They both want to be prime minister. Neither of them will compromise on that. What this means is that the rivalry between them will only get worse as elections approach. Furthermore, Lapid is a lot like Kahlon and Liberman in that he has always fled from any cooperation or even any affiliation with the Labor Party, which he describes as a party on the left.
What is really absurd is that both Yesh Atid and Labor chairs are appealing to voters on the right. Often, they even sound like they are really part of the Likud. And yet, all of their calculations rely on a center-left electorate, which has held a steady 35-40 seats for the past decade.
What we are seeing now is a chaotic political system, in which the definitions of left and right are flexible and in flux. When it comes to public attitudes, however, there is no real sign that there has been any change to the slight advantage held by the right. The proof is Gabbay's own shift to the right as head of the major left-wing party. Gabbay faces an enormous challenge; he must try to keep his hard core of Labor Party voters despite his recent statements and shifts to the right. Furthermore, to reach 30 seats — as he promised when he was elected party leader last July — he will have to take votes away from Yesh Atid. But right now, Lapid is only getting stronger.
That's why it is too early to say that there has been a change in the breakdown of the rival blocs, even if the polls give Gabbay and Lapid 40 or more seats. If elections were held today, the right-wing bloc would hit the campaign trail with a bigger, more united electorate and a clearer message and platform. On the other hand, if Netanyahu is forced to resign as a result of his legal entanglements, it would cause the kind of political explosion that would completely reshuffle the deck. If that happens, anything is possible.