Avi Gabbay is doing everything he can to appeal to Israeli center-right voters, and for good reason. If Gabbay is to be the next prime minister of Israel, he will need to do two things. First, move at least five Knesset seats from the “right” bloc to the “left” bloc, and the second is take at least five seats from Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party. To be successful he needs to do both. Early on, polls seem to indicate that his strategy is working.
Gabbay’s shift right has already gotten the new Labor leader in trouble, with leftist circles mockingly calling him “Lapid Lite.” Three weeks ago, during a Channel 2 interview Gabbay said “there may be no need to evacuate isolated settlements deep in the West Bank” and just days before that Gabbay vowed to not sit in a coalition with the Joint [Arab] List. To add fuel to the fire, Gabbay provocatively approached the topic of religion, asking “what kind of Jew doesn’t believe in God?” – a questionable statement from the leader of the party which represents secular Zionism. The recent comments have led to mounting criticism, especially from left leaning MKs from Labor and Meretz, not to mention the Joint List. What these detractors don’t understand is that Gabbay’s strategy could rescue the Israeli left from political obsolescence.
If Gabbay were to “go left” or focus on Israeli withdrawal from the territories, reaching a two-state solution, and the fight for equality for all Israelis, he would surely gain the respect of left-leaning Labor supporters and maybe sway some Meretz voters to vote for him. However, such an approach would falter in general elections with a polity that is increasingly hostile to – or fatigued by – a peace process with the Palestinians. If Gabbay were to go left, he would weaken Meretz, Israel’s social democratic party that has been on the cusp of falling behind the 3.25 percent threshold required to enter the Knesset. Meretz is currently in disarray, its leader Zehava Galon having recently resigned from the Knesset while reports of internal election fraud among Meretz leadership continue to surface.
Previous Labor leaders have been criticized for “going right” and overlooking the Palestinian issue during their campaigns. In 2013, Shelly Yachimovitch unsuccessfully tried to ride the 2011 social justice protests to electoral success, focusing on economic issues. That approach left her with just 13 seats. Isaac “Buji” Herzog tried to move to the center during his campaign but lacked the charisma and leadership qualities to convince voters. Avi Gabbay is different. Unlike many of his predecessors, Gabbay represents a change from the Labor Ashkenazi elite. Gabbay is new to politics and is viewed by many to be authentic, trustworthy, and capable. His success in business – working up the ladder to become CEO of Israel’s telecom giant Bezeq at the age of 40 – as well as his working-class Jerusalemite Moroccan background resonate with center-right voters, in particular those of Middle Eastern (Mizrahi) heritage.
Not only is Gabbay shifting votes from the Israeli right to the left, he is strengthening the ideological backbone of the Israeli left: Meretz. A party that had been polling at the threshold is now at at 8 seats, according to Channel 10. Gabby’s right-punch tactics will never sway Meretz voters to Labor, but the two parties would sit together in a prospective future government. Thus, the new Labor leader has no reason to weaken or take votes from Meretz. A strong Meretz helps Gabbay form a coalition. What Gabbay still hasn’t figured out yet is how he distinguishes himself from the centrist Yair Lapid and makes the case that he is the only alternative to Netanyahu.
Gabbay’s strategy appears to be proving successful. A Channel 12 News has Gabbay at 21 seats, trailing Netanyahu and the Likud by just 3, while Lapid is a close third at 20. Further, the difference between the blocs is changing. In today’s Knesset, 67 seats are considered to belong to the right bloc, while 53 belong to the center-left. In Channel 12’s poll, the margin shrinks to 62-58, while a Channel 10 poll released the same day shows the center-left bloc with 61 seats as opposed to 59 on the right. This means trouble for Netanyahu. Proponents of the two-state solution should feel a sense of renewed optimism as the Labor Party’s new head continues to seek ways to redefine the Israeli political spectrum.