Labor chair Avi Gabbay unexpectantly announced his political divorce from his Zionist Camp partner, Hatnua head Tzipi Livni, on Jan. 1. The announcement, which broke the Zionist Camp into its original components, was followed by a rapid deterioration in the party’s standing in the polls to single-digit numbers, accompanied by mounting voices calling for Gabbay to be fired.
The move testifies to Gabbay’s failure to improve the image of the party that ruled all of Israel from the establishment of the state until 1977.
Beyond the political reasons behind the decision, Gabbay’s description of his childhood years points to another, no less significant factor: discrimination against a Mizrahi who grew up in a slum, in favor of the comparatively well-off and arrogant Ashkenazis represented by Livni. In a hostile speech in which he explained his decision to break with Livni and her party, Gabbay spoke about growing up in a Jerusalem slum in the 1950s, in a family that came from Morocco. This slum and others served originally as transit camps for new immigrants and became poor neighborhoods over the years.
Gabbay said, “We grew up in asbestos shacks surrounded by new buildings that were populated by more educated families on a higher economic level. Some of the children from those buildings were our good friends. Others looked down their noses at us, the kids from the slums. From a young age, I chose not to give power to the conceited ones. Not to give power to anyone who tells me that I don’t have a chance.”
As is well known, Gabbay came a long way from the slums to a successful career at the height of which he served as CEO of Bezeq, Israel’s largest telecommunication company. Gabbay retired from Bezeq with a fortune of around 50 million shekels ($13.5 million). He then segued from the business sector to politics, first in Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu and then serving as environmental protection minister until he resigned in 2016.
Gabbay, who grew up in a Likud-oriented home, only joined Labor about two years ago. Almost immediately he won the internal elections for chairman after he bragged that he would harvest 30 Knesset mandates for the party and bring Likud voters to Labor. But the opposite happened. Though Gabbay tried to appeal to Likud supporters, he didn’t understand that Labor and Likud voters do not speak the same language.
Gabbay’s attempt to return the traditional-religious crowd to Labor was a total failure. In a lecture to college students in the Israeli southern city of Beersheba in November 2017, Gabbay talked about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s well-known statement to Rabbi Kadouri in 1997: “The left has forgotten what it means to be Jewish.” Gabbay’s answer to a student who raised the issue was, “It's not true. We are Jews and we need to talk about our Jewish values." He added, “We’re Jews, we live in a Jewish state. I think one of the problems of the Labor Party is that it has distanced itself from this.” Like Netanyahu’s original statement to the rabbi, Gabbay’s statement touched a very sensitive spot and aroused sharp criticism from the left. Even when Gabbay tried to wink at the right from the leftist platform that Labor has adopted in recent years, he was fiercely criticized. As a result, he was forced to retract his October 2017 statement that in the event of a peace arrangement, the settlements may not need to be evacuated.
Criticism of Gabbay has risen in recent months and as election day nears. One of Labor’s Knesset members told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “We chose someone we thought could bring us back to being an alternative. We gambled on Gabbay and lost everything. It’s not that he is changing the party’s DNA, he is dismantling it.”
Last week, on the background of the Gabbay crisis and the miserable polls, several Zionist Camp members reportedly made preparations to quit the faction. Ironically, it was Livni who averted the move before she knew that Gabbay intended to dismantle the partnership.
On Jan. 3, the revolt became public when Labor Knesset member Eitan Cabel demanded Gabbay’s dismissal, saying in an interview with Army Radio that if politics were the business world, Gabbay would have long since returned his keys. Polls published a day earlier showed a Labor under Gabbay without Livni would win only seven or eight mandates, down from 24 Zionist Camp seats in the outgoing Knesset. The party began to reach out to its members to sign a petition to hold a “dismissal convention,” though it is not clear whether such a thing is feasible.
But Gabbay isn’t giving in. In a Jan. 3 interview with Yedioth Ahronoth, Gabbay said that he has no intention of allowing another candidate to lead Labor or the faction in the upcoming elections. He is certain that he will succeed in convincing the public that he is the most appropriate and worthy candidate to lead a process of change.
In the interview, Gabbay denied that his firing of Livni during a live broadcast was an act of chauvinism. When asked why he didn’t tell Livni about his intentions beforehand and privately, he said, “I grew up in the hood. In the hood, I learned that if someone hits you, you hit back rather than rush to make peace.” His answer confirms that he did take offense and wanted to get back at the one who offended him. There are some who view his words as another wink toward the right, if they are interpreted in the diplomatic sphere as concerning the Palestinians.
Even if Gabbay survives the attempts to topple him, Labor's expected failure at the voting booths will lead to the recognition that Gabbay has not succeeded in transforming the party, which for a generation of immigrants to Israel from Arab states continues to represent discrimination against the Mizrahi Jews.