New Labor leader must get the party behind him

It was quickly apparent from Avi Gabay’s overlong, meandering acceptance speech after winning the Labor primary Monday, July 10, that the new party leader is no Emmanuel Macron. He is short of the charisma for sweeping the masses off their feet. A pleasant man of 50, who honestly entertains the best of intentions, he was greeted with delight by his overwhelmingly youthful supporters, although he betrayed his lack of political experience by certain moves:

  • His first speech, broadcast live as his introduction to the general public, was much too long and repetitive. While stressing his commitment to a positive campaign for unseating the incumbent Netanyahu government, he let certain negative notes slip out.
  • He gave no hint to the views he holds on foreign and security affairs, which top the priorities confronting any Israeli leader, although he is believed vaguely to be a moderate centrist on the Palestinian issue. His most prominent campaign backer against his rival, the oldtimer Amir Peretz, was the former prime minister and ex-Labor leader Ehud Barak.
    Barak is associated with failures in both capacities and sticking with him would unnecessarily encumber the new leader.
  • Gabay made the generous gesture of offering the defeated party leader, Yizhak Herzog, the post of opposition leader in the Knesset. Maybe too generous. Gabay, although a former minister of environment in the Netanyahu cabinet, was not elected to the Knesset and can therefore not serve as opposition leader. However, instead of choosing the horse that lost the race, he should have brought in a bright new talent from among the 24 Labor lawmakers.
  • His solemn pledge to do away with the party’s endemic factionalism is over-ambitious. Minutes after the vote, a Gabay faction was taking shape while its rivals remain firmly in place.
  • With all eyes on him  Gabay should have chosen the people on the podium at his side as symbols of his message and markers of the team for helping him reach national power against the ruling Likud. Instead, he let himself be mobbed by a motley bunch of hopefuls and has-beens, offering an unconvincing tableau of a winning lineup.

From this uncertain beginning, Gabay may given time yet prove he has the stamina, brainpower and political touch to correct his mistakes and shortcomings.

His leap into politics was well-judged. Born in Jerusalem, the seventh of eight children of Jewish immigrants from Morocco, Gabay served his mandatory military service in IDF intelligence, reaching the rank of lieutenant, before completing a BA degree in economics and an MBA at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He then worked for four years in the Ministry of Finance before joining Bezeq, Israel’s largest telecommunications company, where he rose to CEO. In 2013, he entered politics to join Moshe Kahlon, a Likud defector, to establish the Kulani party. He served as minister of environment between 2015 and 2016. Then, he suddenly quit Kulani and joined Labor. It took him less than a year to win the election as leader.
In many ways, Avi Gabay epitomizes the intermediate generation moving into position on Israel’s political landscape in the last few years.  Most are outsiders, television personae, high-tech billionaires or business executives, like Yair Lapid who came from TV to establish Future, Eral Margalit, the tycoon whose bid for the Labor lead failed, and Education Minister Naftali Bennett of the right-wing Jewish Home party.

Their path to the pinnacle and removal of the apparently unbeatable Binyamin Netanyahu and his Likud has so far been fraught with obstacles, some of their own making.

In the first place, they lack the patience to develop strategies for the long slog to unseat and replace the prime minister. In the second, these hopefuls don’t seem to realize that they are no more than a bridge generation between the professional incumbents – who mostly jumped into politics from the top levels of the military or security establishment and stuck it out through the political process – and the coming generation which has yet to show its face.
Avi Gabay has some advantages over co-members of this intermediate group. He came to politics as the outsider of a party which craves change after its steady decline in one election after another under a succession of too-familiar leaders.

He is also young enough to make good on his promise of a fresh, seemingly modest, face at the helm of the nation, compared with many of the current contenders whose egocentric performances leave the general public cold. And his background and right-of-center conservative leanings are closely akin to the dominant character of middle-generation Laborites and Likudniks alike.
Gabay has a long way to go before he can make a serious bid to topple Netanyahu. He must first unite the Labor party behind him – no mean task which has defeated many of his far more seasoned predecessors.  But it  also behooves Binyamin Netanyahu to take notice of the hunger for change in the country, which is not confined to the opposition Labor party. 

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