When speaking of the “Trump effect” on international politics, the default has been to note the rise of mostly right-wing leaders around the world who have cannily exploited the increase in populist sentiment to bolster themselves. Within the context of Israeli politics, most people would point to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s years-long transformation of the Likud from a center-right liberal democratic party to a bastion of far-right nationalism as its most obvious manifestation. But the Trump effect is not only about right-wing populism per se; it is about voters’ willingness to elect untested political neophytes as well on the theory that they can operate in ways that traditional politicians cannot. The election of the now immensely unpopular Avi Gabbay to the helm of Labor Party Chair, a seemingly innocuous event, proves that even the staidest of political parties can fall prey to these impulses, which are not solely reserved for the election of authoritarian figures, but have inspired voters to take a chance on individuals like Gabbay without much of a political background, all in the name of change.
To be sure, Gabbay is hardly the first figure to enter politics in a leadership role from an unrelated field with a minimal amount of experience; in 2013 Yair Lapid, then a popular journalist for Yediot Ahronot, was able to ride a wave of enthusiasm that led to an unexpected showing of 19 mandates. Yet Lapid’s initial victory had likely much to do with the Israeli electorate’s undefined center once more searching for its latest “white knight,” an appeal that dissipated two years later when his party plummeted to 11 seats in the 2015 elections. Former Labor leader and now designated head of the opposition Shelly Yachimovich too spent years as a veteran reporter covering politics prior to her election to the Knesset in 2006 and taking over as chair of the party in 2011. This is to say nothing of the hallowed list of past Labor leaders like Ehud Barak and Yitzhak Rabin who made their names in the public eye of the military before jumping into the political fray.
Gabbay, however, is a different animal altogether. Lapid’s success as a political cipher is somewhat more acceptable given his decision to begin his own party, and, as mentioned above, the political space that he inhabits. Yet Labor has always been a party of insiders; those who rose to the top in the past have either been loyalists awaiting the opportunity to make their move for the leadership, or else long associated in some way with the party. And Yachimovich, who came from a non-political background, had been immersed in political affairs for years, having gained fame (and notoriety) as an outspoken proponent for the IDF’s pullout from southern Lebanon, among other topics.
Gabbay, who only entered the scene in 2015, was neither a Laborite, nor was he more broadly associated with a party on the left. Rather, he helped form Kulanu, an offshoot of Likud run by a disgruntled Moshe Kahlon tired of Netanyahu’s overbearing tendencies. Perhaps even more glaring, Gabbay’s background appeared devoid of anything remotely relevant to politics or public service. He was and remains to many an unknown political quantity—but he had proven himself a successful businessman, serving as CEO for telecommunications company Bezeq for a number of years. His victory in the Labor primaries in 2017 against then-leader Yitzhak Herzog after having joined the party only seven months prior (and after a short stint as Environment Minister) was surprising, less because of Herzog’s spent popularity and more because of the decision to elect a virtual unknown. This is in stark contrast to a figure like Donald Trump, who had been prominent in the United States for years, gladly exploiting any and all opportunities to plant himself in the public’s view. However, despite these differences, both figures were able to parlay their business acumen to convince voters that these skill sets could in fact be transferred over with little difficulty. Furthermore, they provided a breath of fresh air to voters tired of ‘professional’ politicians who had, for the last time, failed to deliver on their promises, and in the case of Labor, failed to return the party to power.
Yet the situation in the United States might once again serve as a cautionary tale of proving that success in one field cannot simply be emulated in another, good intentions notwithstanding. To be fair, Gabbay’s behavior can hardly be compared to that of the often-sheer recklessness of Trump—not to mention his place in the opposition, where he could do far less damage. But since taking control of Labor, the party’s approval (after rebounding slightly following Herzog’s departure) has dropped precipitously, with recent polls pointing to single digits for April’s coming elections. Even with the knowledge that three months remain until then, optimistic scenarios seem elusive for Gabbay, who trails rivals like Lapid and former Chief of Staff Benny Gantz by many mandates in opinion polling.
Some of this has to do with Gabbay’s apparent lack of charisma, and his inability to cut an impressive figure capable of taking on Netanyahu. Nonetheless, personality cannot be solely to blame. Gabbay, like a number of other figures competing for left and center votes, seems to have come under similar faulty conclusions that broadening one’s appeal means pandering to the right, and has thus given himself carte blanche to discard Labor’s traditional mission as the flagship party of the left. Such iconoclastic actions likely made sense to someone like Gabbay; after all, his unexpected victory may have signaled to him that voters were open to new ideas regarding Labor’s direction.
Whether or not this is true, Gabbay seems to have taken actions and made statements that have not only failed to draw new voters into the fold but alienated a number of traditional left-leaning constituents, including his bizarre comments concerning the evacuation of settlements in any peace deal and his echoing of Netanyahu from decades prior that the left has “forgotten what it means to be Jewish”. His public humiliation of Hatnua leader Tzipi Livni and the dissolution of the Zionist Union is simply another misstep in a long line of poorly thought out and impulsive decisions, leading to an exodus of hundreds of its members in protest.
That Labor voters decided to go out on a limb and vote in someone like Gabbay speaks to the desperation of many on the left in search of a savior-like figure who could finally take on the prime minister. Yet once the dust settles in April with the likelihood of yet another Likud victory, Gabbay’s days as Labor leader will be numbered. His tenure, whenever it ends, may be remembered less as a grand experiment that went awry, and more as a lesson for party members—already notoriously fickle and willing to replace party leaders at the drop of a hat—that future challengers should be drawn exclusively from Labor’s own ranks.