Israeli Labor mulls split as polls predict crushing loss

Despite the dismal polls, no Knesset member in the Labor Party is willing to confront unpopular leader Avi Gabbay.

al-monitor Zionist Camp leaders at the annual Jewish new year's toast, Tel Aviv, Israel, Sept. 5, 2018.  Photo by Zionist Camp.

Topics covered

zionist camp, tzipi livni, labor party, knesset, israeli politics, israeli knesset, israeli elections, avi gabbay

Sep 7, 2018

In a toast at a Zionist Camp party ahead of the Jewish new year, “Avi Gabbay stood on stage and announced that he will be the next prime minister of Israel, when just a minute earlier, we heard that a poll gave the Zionist Camp 11 seats." A Labor Knesset member told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, "It was ridiculous. It was so detached from reality.” The Sept. 5 event in Tel Aviv was supposed to be a festive occasion, but he described the mood as “gloomy.”

Gabbay, the chairman of the Zionist Camp, delivered a long speech, full of praise for a party on the rise. He spoke of a grass-roots mobilization on the party’s behalf and how before they knew it, he would be prime minister.

The fact is that the state of the Zionist Camp could not be any worse. Under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Likud is strong and stable. The second largest party, according to the polls, is Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, which is competing with Labor for the same voter base. While the Zionist Camp currently has 24 seats in the Knesset and is therefore the main opposition party, the political system has long treated it as a mid-sized party, if not smaller.

“Gabbay is the last thing to concern Netanyahu,” laughed another Zionist Camp Knesset member in a conversation with Al-Monitor. “Netanyahu is not even making any effort to defeat him. After all, Gabbay isn’t taking anything away from the Likud.”

The Labor party constitutes the bigger partner within the Zionist Camp alliance, so ominous polls affect Labor Knesset members more dramatically. Low numbers in the election would mean that most of the Labor Knesset members won’t keep their jobs. And so, they are already looking into ways to save their party from Gabbay — at least that’s what they call it.

The idea of splitting the party is problematic. As one Knesset member who was exposed to the plan explained, “We’ve been through hard times before, but we’ve never been through anything like this. The predominant feeling is that someone took our party away from us. He came from outside the party and robbed us, plain and simple. If I thought that splitting the party would save us, I would go for it, but it could also bury us with the public.”

Following Gabbay's election as chair in July 2017, the traditional Israeli Labor — its spirit, its institutions, its drive — effectively ceased to exist. Gabbay is either feuding or on bad terms with most members, and his relationship with the party’s chapters and base is shaky and detached. In any case, Gabbay continues to crash in the polls and is taking the party down with him.

“We’ve been taken captive,” one senior Labor Knesset member told Al-Monitor. Labor chose Gabbay, an otherwise anonymous figure who did not grow up in Labor, in an act of desperation after repeated electoral defeats. Too late, they realized that they had voted for a “hostile takeover,” as the anonymous lawmaker called it.

A significant number of Labor Knesset members who spoke to Al-Monitor for this article on condition of anonymity claim that the current state of the party is the worst that it has ever been. “We’ve been taken over by a virus. That’s how I feel,” said one. “We elected someone because we thought he would he would restore our status as a viable alternative. We took a gamble and lost big. We are heading down a slope, and the question now is how much damage Gabbay will leave behind, and if we will manage to recover from this. It’s not like he changed the party’s DNA. He’s just taking it apart.”

So far, not a single Labor Knesset member has directly confronted Gabbay, each for his or her own personal reasons. Nevertheless, it is impossible to hide the unrest in the party anymore.

The bubbling pressure cooker exploded on Sept. 4 during a birthday party for Knesset member Leah Fadida. At some point, an argument broke out between Avi Gabbay and Yossi Yonah over the six seats that were promised to Tzipi Livni, chair of Hatnua (the smaller partner within the Zionist Camp alliance) as part of the agreement she made with Gabbay that led to her appointment as opposition leader. These seats are in addition to the four seats reserved for Gabbay appointees according to the party constitution. Notably, the constitution was amended to include those seats at Gabbay’s request.

What this means is that there is almost no chance for Labor representatives in the current Knesset to get elected to the next government while the polls continue to give the party 11 seats.

Back to the birthday party: Yonah made a comment about this problem, and it infuriated Gabbay. According to people present, he lost control and started to shout: “I’ll do what I want!” Yonah responded by calling Gabbay a bully.

This wasn’t just an internal feud. Yonah was one of Gabbay’s earliest supporters in the party. He helped Gabbay in his primary victory over Amir Peretz for the party's leadership, putting his own team at Gabbay’s disposal. Now he feels cheated. Yonah isn’t the only Knesset member who supported Gabbay and now seems to regret it. One of the most important and most senior Knesset members to make the switch is Eitan Cabel. According to some senior Labor members, he is now a prime candidate to raise the banner of revolt. So far, however, even those who want to act haven’t come up with an effective plan.

Also in that group of veteran Knesset members is Shelly Yachimovich, a former chair. She once covered Gabbay’s back, though their relationship has cooled recently. Yachimovich still supports Gabbay publicly. In closed-door conversations she says that despite any criticism she may have of him, she will not participate in any actions against him.

A closer look at the situation seems to show that Gabbay has no reason to worry about a split. It doesn’t look like there is anyone who can pull it off. But that does not change Gabbay’s standing in the polls or in the party, for that matter. Though Knesset members join him on visits to the local chapters and party offices and make a point of showing that it is business as usual, the fact is that none of them really feels that the party has a leader with whom they can storm the barricades in the next election.

“We’re depressed. It’s true,” yet another lawmaker said in a moment of openness. “We’re all tense and suspicious of one another, because we realize that we’re going to crash in the elections unless a miracle happens.”

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