The First Qualification Is Inexperience

AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov

Avi Gabbay speaks to supporters following his victory in Tel Aviv. 

The upheaval finally reached Israel Monday, at least the small dusty corner of Israel known as the Labor Party. From there it might spread.

Until now, Israelis have had to watch foreign news reports for the politics of insurgency, of “we're mad as hell,” of “give us anything but the people we know”: socialist Bernie Sanders nearly taking over the Democratic Party, serially bankrupt businessman Donald Trump taking over the Republican Party and then the United States, centrist technocrat Emmanuel Macron blowing away every established party and getting elected president of France.

Even if the world's fashions can be a bit slow to get to Israel, they do finally arrive. Monday the Labor Party elected as its new leader an outsider named Avi Gabbay.

Gabbay has only been a member of Labor for six months. If a membership card was mailed to him, it may not have arrived yet, given the state of the Israeli post office. The only political position he has held was minister of the environment for a year, as the constant odd-man-out in Benjamin Netanyahu's government. Quitting that job was what made him a national figure.

Gabbay does have a low-key charisma, an anti-politician appeal. Interviewed on camera, he gives the unusual impression of actually listening, thinking, and answering the question he was asked, rather than the question he wanted to be asked.

If you put aside his lack of political experience, Gabbay (pronounced gah-BI, with a long "i") also has an impressive life story: He was the seventh out of eight children of Moroccan immigrants, brought up in a shack in the last mass-immigration camp in Jerusalem. Out of all the Mizrahim—Jews who came to Israel from Muslim countries—Moroccans probably faced the worst stereotypes and the harshest discrimination. Moroccan kids were regularly shunted into vocational education, followed by unglamorous service jobs in the military.

Gabbay made it into an elite academic high school, then rose to the rank of major in an army intelligence unit with the equivalent of Ivy League cachet. Afterwards came an MBA, and a quick climb to CEO of the national telecom semi-monopoly, Bezeq, by age 40.

His first foray into politics was with Moshe Kahalon, one of the countless right-wing politicians who has fallen out with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. An enduring paradox of Israeli politics is that Jews whose families came from Muslim countries, many of them part of a slowly sinking middle and lower-middle class, continue to vote for Netanyahu's Likud despite his cut-throat capitalist economics. Multi-generational resentment of Labor, which held power in the years of mass immigration, is a large part of the answer. Kahalon, whose parents came from Libya, created his Kulanu (“All of Us”) party before the 2015 election and appealed to this constituency.

Post-election, the party joined the coalition and Gabbay got a cabinet seat. Almost immediately, it became clear that he was seated at the wrong table. Alone in the cabinet, he bitterly opposed Netanyahu's sweetheart deal with energy companies to develop Israel's offshore natural gas fields. When Netanyahu appointed right-wing firebrand Avigdor Lieberman as defense minister in May 2016, Gabbay held a press conference to announce he was quitting. The standard account is that he didn't bother calling Kahalon first. After a few months of considering his direction, Gabbay joined Labor.

And then, it turned out, his minimal political experience was an asset. Labor has been the perennial No. 2 party in Israel for 40 years, out of which it has held the premiership for less than eight. In the 2015 election, public exhaustion with Netanyahu gave Labor a reasonable chance—except that its candidate for prime minister was Isaac Herzog, probably the most boring leader it had ever chosen. Herzog's only visible qualification was having grown up in the party as the son and nephew of prominent Labor politicians. He had become head of the party, it seemed, only as the safe pick of aging apparatchiks.

This time the rank and file rebelled. The first round of the vote was held last week, with five serious candidates. Herzog came in an embarrassing third. The runoff was between Gabbay and Amir Peretz—a former Labor candidate for prime minister, ex-union leader, and former defense minister. Peretz had the union machine behind him. Herzog endorsed him, which may have driven votes away.

Gabbay won with 52 percent of the vote. Put differently, over half of Labor's members preferred anyone but a Labor politician to head their party.

The disgust with Herzog and with factions that have been mired in squabbles for most of living memory is understandable. The preference for a non-politician makes less sense. Gabbay's management experience as a corporate CEO will not necessarily transfer to politics—even if Bezeq, unlike the Trump organization, was a serious corporation with a board of directors, thousands of employees, and a union. Gabbay has never negotiated a legislative compromise, built a coalition, or tried to turn former opponents inside a party into supporters.

As an insurgent, Gabbay is closer to Macron than to Sanders. He's a technocrat by training and belief. He is not a socialist, but it's been a long time since Labor had much to do with socialism. He is, explicitly, a supporter of the welfare state. Among other promises, he says he will eliminate outsourcing of civil service jobs to labor contractors—a method that Israeli governments have used on a massive scale to cut benefits and pay.

He says he favors a two-state solution and sees Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas as a negotiating partner. He claims his model is the late Yitzhak Rabin, the assassinated peacemaker. This is a good sentiment but vague. His clearest commitments on security issues are economic: He wants to transfer funds from settlements to poor towns inside Israel, and from the defense budget to civilian spending.

Balanced against his inexperience, Gabbay has two political advantages. One is personal: His personal story may help him attract Mizrahi voters without losing the Tel Aviv middle class.

The other is circumstantial. His election victory shared front pages with the news that the police are making arrests in an investigation of bribery in arms purchases. Of the corruption scandals threatening Netanyahu, this one is the most serious.

So far Avi Gabbay has been an extraordinarily lucky novice. If his luck holds, investigations will lead to indictments, which will lead to early elections. The best hope for Gabbay, and for Labor, is to face the electorate while he still has the freshness of an insurgent. 

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