New Hope for Israel’s Labor Party

In France, Emmanuel Macron ran from the center, eviscerated the traditional conservative and Socialist parties and outflanked the frightening far-right National Front to become president. His newly minted political party then won a majority in the National Assembly. Will Avi Gabbay do the same in Israel?

To be sure, there are differences in France’s and Israel’s political systems. But Gabbay, a political newcomer who won the leadership of the center-left Labor party last week, may stir up the political status quo in which the unpopular left cannot win, the unpopular Prime Minister Netanyahu cannot lose, and the frightening far right grows more influential.

Two surveys conducted on behalf of Israel’s main news channels suggest that is already happening. The polls showed the Zionist Union (of which Labor is the senior partner) winning 20 to 24 Knesset seats if elections were held now, compared to Netanyahu’s Likud, with 25 to 29. In a sign of hope for Israel’s beleaguered political left, support came not only from voters who abandoned the party in recent months, but also from Arabs and moderate right-wingers.

The difference could be Gabbay. A former telecom exec, Gabbay, 50, is a self-made millionaire who joined Labor six months ago. He defeated Amir Peretz, a former party leader and defense minister, in a runoff election. The incumbent leader, Isaac Herzog, was knocked out in the first round. Gabbay helped form the center-right Kulanu party on entering politics in 2015, and served in Netanyahu’s government as environmental and educationminister for a year before quitting in disgust.

Gabbay is not a typical Israeli Labor party leader. The party left socialism behind decades ago, but the idea of a millionaire businessman succeeding the line of David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin sounds like fiction. More important, though, Gabbay is a member of Israel’s Mizrachi majority — his family immigrated to Israel from Morocco — which may open the doors of the Labor party to become more ethnically pluralistic, and help move the Israeli left away from the Ashkenazi and elitist image that has been so damaging.

Polls show Netanyahu is still the preferred leader of a plurality of Israelis. But a more competitive center-left could help Israel pull away from the far right, which appears to be more focused on building in the West Bank and writing non-Orthodox Jews out of the Jewish people. A leadership concerned with the welfare of the average Israeli and committed to finding comity with the Palestinians would be a Macron-like breath of fresh air for Israel.

The next election could get interesting.

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