Israel Pulse

Labor chief will not resign despite electoral disaster

Article Summary
Israel's Labor seniors are reeling as chairman Avi Gabbay refuses to take responsibility for the party's electoral defeat.

According to the final count, Israel's Labor Party managed to garner only six Knesset seats in the April 9 elections, the worst result ever for the party.

At first it was generally assumed that Avi Gabbay would resign as chairman as early as election night once the extent of the damage became clear. But this wishful thinking didn’t last long. As he stood before the cameras while exit polls gave Labor just six to eight seats, for a moment Gabbay looked like he was about to deliver a concession speech, assume responsibility for the party’s failure and step down. He did speak about the electoral blow and a very difficult night, but then surprised everyone by failing to take any responsibility for the shocking outcome.

Two days later, the party’s secretary general Eran Hermoni told him that the right thing to do was to step down immediately. In a private meeting between the two, Hermoni had some harsh words for Gabbay. He did not get in return any indication of Gabbay’s plans. Only later did Gabbay say that he has no intention of resigning, stating that he plans to keep working on behalf of Labor and will be serving the public from the opposition benches. Then he added that he plans to hold consultations in the coming days about advancing the primaries and other options.

The days passed and the final results left the Labor Party with just six seats, but Gabbay continued to cling to his own seat. At a meeting of the party’s leadership on April 17, Gabbay diverted the discussion toward primaries, announcing that they will be held earlier than expected. (Labor's charter indicates that if the party loses the elections, primaries should be held within 14 months. Until the primaries, he will apparently continue to serve as chair. According to some critics, Gabbay is simply stalling to avoid the real issue: his responsibility for the failure.

And so, it has since become clear to the party that he has no plan to resign, but so far, none of the party’s outgoing or incoming Knesset members are doing anything about it, no matter how ridiculous the situation is. “It has been four days since I spoke to him last. It was obvious to me that he would have to go after results like that, but it doesn’t look like he is going anywhere,” Hermoni told Al-Monitor. “It’s not as if all the party’s problems will disappear if Gabbay leaves. Nevertheless, it is clear to us that it would be the beginning of a process of rehabilitation. Gabbay needs to take responsibility. He was given power and authority, and he failed. It makes no sense for him to stay.”

Highly regarded veteran lawmaker Eitan Cabel, who was dropped to an unrealistic slot on the list because of his rivalry with Gabbay and is now out of the Knesset altogether, was even more blunt. Cabel called on Gabbay to resign as early as election night, but now he is also coming to terms with the idea that Gabbay has no plans to do so. “He’s drawing it out,” Cabel told Al-Monitor. “I’m already seeing the beginnings of a campaign on Facebook and Twitter calling for him to stay. Unfortunately, it looks like the reason he’s staying is to continue the work of destroying the party.” Cabel claims that Gabbay has been deceiving the party and that he plans to get sworn in and then “refuse to budge from his seat." He warned, "If more people don’t rise up against him, he will destroy the party once and for all.”

Yet apart from Cabel and Hermoni, silence seems to be the rule. In private conversations, the remaining Knesset members say that Gabbay should have handed back the keys the night that Labor was trounced, but they would rather not say so publicly. Now everyone is watching Amir Peretz and Shelly Yachimovich, two former Labor chairs who recently resumed cooperating after a lengthy estrangement. So far, neither has called on Gabbay to resign. All sorts of plots are being hatched behind the scenes and there have been calls for both Peretz and Yachimovich to be appointed temporary chair so that they can rehabilitate Labor, but so far nothing practical has come of it.

The Labor Party has a long-established reputation of showing no mercy to its leaders when they fail to win an election. Under normal circumstances, they tend to be deposed at once. In this case, however, the shock is so great that they have yet to recover from the idea that their chairman almost got them wiped off the map and that highly regarded Knesset members like Meirav Michaeli, Revital Swid and Omer Bar Lev failed to win seats.

The party's turn toward the moribund had nothing to do with the emergence of the Blue and White Party. The process began long before that.

Gabbay was first elected party leader in the 2017 primary. The party’s members made a wild gamble, choosing an outsider over former chair Amir Peretz in a quest to return the party to its glory days. Gabbay was and in many ways still is an outsider. He grew up in a Likud household and only entered politics two years earlier as a member of Kulanu, which chose him as one of its ministers. It looks like he thought of Labor as a shelf company he could use to become prime minister. He promised the desperate Labor members that he would win them 30 seats and that hundreds of thousands of Likud supporters would back him, bringing the party to power again.

Only after he was elected did Labor discover that he has nothing but derision for its veteran members. Gabbay told the organizers not to bring him to the branch offices, arguing that he wants a new audience. He veered right ideologically in an effort to win Likud voters, but all he really did was chase away the party’s old guard and Labor crashed in the polls accordingly. Gabbay took the helm of a large opposition party with 24 seats, but failed to forge a path forward or turn it into a viable alternative to take the reins of government.

In a particularly damaging move right before the election, he deposed Zionist Camp co-leader Tzipi Livni. Adding insult to injury, he did so while the cameras were rolling in a humiliating move that reflected badly on him and the party.

Labor’s resounding failure in the election will take a dire economic toll. Senior party members will say that they might have no choice but to shut down the party headquarters and move to a small office. Almost all the party’s paid staff will have to be let go.

Will Gabbay’s real intentions become clear anytime soon? Sources in the party say that senior members such as Peretz, Yachimovich and Cabel are expected to act right after the Passover holiday April 20-27, though it is not clear whether they will demand Gabbay's resignation. These party leaders believe that it is incumbent upon them to save it and that they can win back a large part of their base, particularly after Blue and White's failure to defeat Netanyahu. Many people on the left who voted Blue and White did so believing that it was the best way to defeat the Likud. Now that that effort has failed, Labor has a chance to win them back by rehabilitating itself as a true left-wing party with clear positions and a solid agenda.

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Found in: knesset, labor party, israeli politics, israeli elections, avi gabbay

Mazal Mualem is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse and formerly the senior political correspondent for Maariv and Haaretz. She also presents a weekly TV show covering social issues on the Knesset channel. On Twitter: @mazalm3

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