Zionist Camp’s Gabbay scrambles to stop poll slide

As his poll numbers continue to dive, Zionist Camp leader Avi Gabbay is returning to the party’s traditional electorate.

al-monitor Avi Gabbay, the new leader of Israel's center-left Labor Party, gestures as he delivers his victory speech after winning the Labor Party primary runoff, at an event in Tel Aviv, Israel, July 10, 2017.  Photo by REUTERS/Amir Cohen.

Topics covered

likud, israeli settlements, mike pence, israeli politics, meretz, zionist camp, yesh atid, avi gabbay

Jan 23, 2018

While the Zionist Camp’s decline in the polls has become a troubling collapse in recent weeks, chairman Avi Gabbay could take comfort in the fact that no one from his party’s leadership has publicly challenged him yet.

About half a year since his surprising election, with his lofty ambitions to get to 30 mandates in the next election and return the party to power — Gabbay is moving further from the target. On the way, he’s discovering that the strategy he thought would pay off — winking to the right, getting close to the ultra-Orthodox and spurning the party’s base — is yielding the opposite result. Precious mandates have fled to Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid and the awakening Meretz Party, the Likud members aren’t coming and the future appears grim. Current polls show that the party would lose about half of the 24 mandates it won in 2015, and even the most flattering fall very far from the ambitious goal Gabbay set for himself.

Lapid, on the other hand, is on the rise: He’s remained loyal to the strategic line of a centrist party, is keeping an official mien, isn’t zigzagging and is enjoying the effects of the supermarket law, which reinforces his status as a secular leader. The chairman of Yesh Atid has managed in recent polls to increase the percentage of people who think he’s suited to be prime minister and to close the gap with Netanyahu, while Gabbay is treading water. The effect of Gabbay’s election has been erased, and the political system has returned to where it was a year ago, where Lapid, even though he isn’t the head of the opposition, is the main challenger to Netanyahu and the Likud for prime minister.

In addition, Lapid has gained roundabout support from potential partners to a future government. Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman — two leaders of coalition parties who have a personal beef with Gabbay — coordinated announcements two and a half months ago that there is no chance that they would join his government after the next election because he’s a leftist. Such a statement was meant to scare the soft right away from him.

Along with the return of mandates to Lapid, Meretz on the left is also gaining strength at the Zionist Camp’s expense. At the beginning, according to political sources, Gabbay said in closed meetings that the leftists should be pushed out from the Zionist Camp to Meretz, thus drawing mandates from Lapid. In reality the opposite happened.

There will certainly come a time of internal party reckoning, dwelling on the lost six months with Gabbay as head of the Zionist Camp. Until then, the party’s Knesset members hope that the collapse will come to a stop. While the party gives Gabbay the benefit of external quiet, internally it’s starting to lose patience, even though it doesn’t know exactly what to do about it. No one wants to be accused of being a traitor and of standing in the way of the new chairman’s success.

“Our great fortune is that the election is not tomorrow morning; otherwise, we’d have a catastrophe,” one of the Knesset members who supported Gabbay in the primary told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. According to another, “Avi Gabbay brought us there, so he should kindly fix it. He didn’t include us in any decisions he’s made.”

Another Knesset member told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “I feel that I still don’t know the man. He’s not accessible. He’s cold and instrumentalist. He doesn’t really listen and acts alone. There are no political debates and no party life. Once again we’re seeking direction. In such a state, why should [former IDF Chief of Staff] Benny Ganz come to us and not to Lapid?”

Another Knesset member explains the extent of the missed opportunity in this way: “He was so convinced that because he’s of Moroccan background, grew up in a humble home and made something of himself he’ll bring people with him. He didn’t understand that it’s much more complicated.”

Gabbay does understand that he has a problem. In recent weeks, he’s tried to do damage control and restore the trust of the party’s base in him. This is the party’s traditional voting public, which has been astounded at the new chairman’s right-leaning statements — starting with questioning the necessity of dismantling settlements by declaring, “A united Jerusalem is even more important than peace,” to truly insulting party supporters by stating the left has forgotten what it means to be Jewish.

All of these statements were byproducts of a strategy according to which Gabbay, as a Jew of Middle Eastern background who grew up in a traditional Likud-supporting home, would know how to bring with him soft-right voters and thus grow the party’s power. Gabbay believed that he would have an advantage against the Ashkenazi Lapid, who’s a red rag for the ultra-Orthodox and thus could take down Netanyahu.

His attempt to bring back the party’s traditional audience can be seen in his speech at the party’s meeting on Jan. 22. In response to Vice President Mike Pence’s speech in the Knesset, which lavished gifts on Netanyahu and the right-wing government, Gabbay emphasized the diplomatic stance of the Zionist Camp. He welcomed Pence in front of the portrait of Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister who led Israel to the Oslo Accord and was assassinated for it. Gabbay said that despite the vice president’s true friendship, “In less than 24 hours he’ll be on his way to his next destination. And I’ll tell you a little secret: Even after his visit there’ll be 4.5 million Palestinians here. His visit won’t change this fact and won’t change our duty to solve this problem and not kick the can down to our children.”

This message wasn’t meant for a Likud audience, but for the loyal base of the Zionist Camp — the electorate Gabbay took for granted until it started leaving. Most went to Lapid and some went to Meretz, which stands to be revitalized by its decision to move to open primaries — and this is bad news for Gabbay.

In many ways, the Zionist Camp (with Labor its central element) has resumed its search for an identity, as in all of the recent election cycles. Gabbay is losing trust and credit, and in this situation none of his rivals has to rise up and “finish him off.” He’s doing an excellent job on his own.

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