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On the Rise: Israel’s New Labor Leader, Avi Gabbay

In a time when politicians increasingly take irregular paths to politics, Avi Gabbay both fits and doesn’t fit the mold.

Earlier this summer, Avi Gabbay was elected Israeli political party Labour’s new leader. Immediately news outlets around the world began comparing him to France’s President, Emmanuel Macron.

Both men have worked in and out of politics—Macron was a senior investment banker before he ascended to presidency, Gabbay was the CEO of telecommunications firm Bezeq. Both men defeated establishment candidates, though Gabbay’s opponent was a member of the same party, as compared to the far-right Le Pen. Both have relatively new political careers and are entering politics at a time when their respective countries are at crucial junctions. Whether or not the similarities between Gabbay and Macron hold or media sources were trying to make Gabbay’s election relatable to global readers, both men are part of a new wave of outsider politicians.

Gabbay only joined the Labour party eight months ago and his win was viewed as an upset to the political order (sound familiar?). He didn’t have endorsements from labor unions, but he did have the endorsement of Labor’s last prime minister, Ehud Barak, who said in a speech that that Netanyahu would be “sweating tonight, with good reason,” when Gabbay won.

Many Israeli citizens agree with Barak and already believe that Gabbay has the potential to unseat Netanyahu in 2019. Note, Gabbay is not a minister and therefore cannot serve as the head of the opposition. Isaac Herzog, who Gabbay defeated in the elections, will continue to be the leader of the opposition in the Knesset (the Israeli parliament), while Gabbay serves as leader from the outside and is Labour’s candidate for prime minister.

Gabbay is not afraid to share his aspirations for becoming Israel’s next leader. On his website he criticizes Netanyahu for separating and encouraging factions within the Israeli population: “From this moment on, to every citizen in Israel, whom the existing regime has worked to separate, it separated the right and the left, the religious and the secular, the Mizrahim and the Ashkenazim, the Jews and the Arabs -it’s time to reconnect.”

Gabbay is well acquainted with many sectors of Israeli society. He is of Moroccan descent and is a Mizrahi- “eastern” Jew. Mizrahim began voting for right wing parties such as Likud, Netanyahu’s party, because they believed that Ashkenazi, “European” Jews treated them as second class citizens in Israel. Though some believe that Gabbay can win back Mizrahi voters, Amir Peretz, a former Labour leader, was also Mizrahi and was unable to garner as many Mizrahi votes as expected.

Still, Gabbay’s story might bring more working class voters to his party. He grew up in a transit camp for new immigrants as one of eight children before serving as an intelligence officer in the Israeli Defense Forces. After attending university, he worked in the government for two years before scaling the ranks of Bezeq, Israel’s largest telecommunications firm, and eventually becoming the international CEO. His large salary while at Bezeq meant that he was largely able to finance his own campaign for Labour leadership.

He is also well acquainted with different cross sections of Israeli politics. He was a founding member of a center-right party, Kulanu, which joined Netanyahu’s coalition after the 2015 elections. He also served as environmental protection minister under Netanyahu. However, when Netanyahu chose to welcome Yisrael Beytenu, a right wing party, into his coalition instead of signing a peace deal and appointed a new defense minister, Gabbay quit in defiance. He joined center-left Labour eight months ago.

Center leftists believe that Gabbay has the potential to bridge the divide and transform Labor into a party that represents the interests of all classes.

He advocates for a new approach in relations with the Palestinian Authority and thinks that predominantly Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem could be put under the control of the PA. His website reads that he stands for “A leadership that acts honestly and courageously for peace with our neighbors.” Additionally, he made a not-so-subtle dig at Netanyahu’s recent corruption charges by describing how Netanyahu could not recognize that his cousin, “who is conducting coalition negotiations for you, can not represent a submarine company!”

Others say however, that despite Gabbay’s seemingly popular rise, he doesn’t understand that not all Israelis want change. One Israeli, age 60, when The Politic asked “what is the biggest issue, you, as an Israeli citizen, face?” replied “we give a very good life to everyone; Arabs, Jews, Druze. However, it’s seen from the international community as poor.” Contributor David Rosenberg in an opinion piece in Israeli newspaper Haaretz wrote: “The fact that Netanyahu keeps being returned to office is partly due to the absence of serious contenders, but it is mainly because under Netanyahu and his immediate predecessors, Israel has done well for itself.”

The Guardian cites writer Ben Caspit, who said “If [Gabbay] believes that daydreams about ‘peace’ will bring the voters home,” he is wrong. He continued, “Someone has to let him know that the people of Israel have taken a sharp right turn.” Gabbay, a centrist, has the potential to take votes from Netanyahu’s party but could also be a wedge that would send center-right voters further right.

Leftist critics believe that Gabbay’s centrist politics won’t go far enough and will swallow the far-left, drowning out their voices.

Still, many have hope. In conversation with The Politic, an Israeli professor said that the current political situation makes the country virtually unlivable. However, she believes that if Gabbay were Prime Minister, he could restore the country to what she views as the country’s former glory.

Abraham Diskin, a political science professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that “Like Macron, Gabbay brings hope…People are again saying: Here is a new medicine. The old medicine didn’t cure us.”

Labour needs new energy if it hopes to rise to power once again.

In 1956, at its strongest, Labour held 55/120 seats. In 2009 it held only 9. The Israeli parliament requires coalition building and compromises. Gabbay’s outgoing personality and clear grasp of social media (he asked his Facebook followers to share his opponent Peretz’s post requesting help in finding his son’s lost dog) may be crucial political tools in helping Labour regain its former glory.

Though the future is unknown, one ought to keep an eye out. Only time will tell whether Gabbay’s challenge to Netanyahu is idealistic or a soon-to-be reality.