- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 16, 2017

Despite pulling off an upset victory in the primary elections of one of Israel’s most storied political parties, little is known about Avi Gabbay — the man the center-left hope can pose a real challenge to the nearly 14-year rule of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Last week, Mr. Gabbay narrowly secured his position as the head of Israel’s Labor party, the nation’s founding political organization that bore first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, first female Prime Minister Golda Meir and the country’s last great hope at a peace deal with the Palestinians, Yitzhak Rabin.

A relative unknown in politics, Mr. Gabbay’s ascent to the head of Labor is nothing short of a revolution, albeit an internal one. He didn’t ride waves of populism into the government like President Trump or garner the love of the public with charisma like French President Emmanuel Macron.

“People are still very clueless about him, they don’t know much about him,” said Tal Schneider, a leading Israeli political journalist and commentator. “To my opinion, he’s a big question mark.”

A businessman turned politician, Mr. Gabbay was born and raised in Jerusalem, the seventh of eight children of a Morrocan family who lived in a transit camp when they immigrated to Israel.

He’s a self-made millionaire who rose through the ranks to lead Israel’s biggest telecommunications companies, Bezeq, and transitioned into politics by joining the like-minded Kulanu party, a center-right party that campaigned on economic reform.

Mr. Gabbay was appointed environmental protection minister after the 2015 elections, and during his short tenure achieved a political victory by implementing a stalled initiative to impose fees for plastic bags.

However, in the clearest examples of his principles, Mr. Gabbay resigned last year over a confluence of political and social events. These included the resignation of Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon over the prime minister’s failure to condemn the execution-style shooting of a Palestinian terrorist by an Israeli soldier.

Mr. Ya’alon was replaced with Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the more hard-line, right-wing party Yisrael Beytenu.

“The recent political moves are something that I just can’t be a part of,” Mr. Gabbay said at the time, The Jerusalem Post reported. “The recent political moves and the replacement of the defense minister are grave acts which in my opinion ignore what is important for national security and will result in more divisiveness and extremism.”

Last week, Mr. Gabbay beat former Labor leader Amir Peretz in a nail-bitingly close primary election, securing 52 percent of the vote and signaling nothing less than a shrugging off of the establishment.

“I think what gave him the absolute win is really the fact that the party members rejected the old establishment,” Ms. Schneider said. “It was like a child in the family that [would] step out and choose a new parent to be adopted by Labor is like a small family, actually, and the kids — the kids revolted.”

While national elections aren’t expected to take place until 2019, a crisis in the coalition could send the country to the polls early — as was the case in 2015 and 2013 — and Labor’s changing leadership shows the party’s intention and preparation to pose a credible challenge to Mr. Netanyahu and his Likud party.

But a number of events would have to happen to give Mr. Gabbay a fighting chance to pose even a credible challenge to the established right wing. They would include the demise of the cult of Mr. Netanyahu, with his grip on power undermined by at least three criminal and corruption investigations into his family and associates.

“If that happens,” Ms. Schneider continued, “it gives Gabbay fresh opportunity because, if you have all of these up and newcomers — or relatively fresh faces on the right wing — than the relatively fresh faces on the left wing may get a chance, an equal chance, because they’re not going against this big machine of Netanyahu.”

But the public vote out of fear, Ms. Schneider said, “for some reason Netanyahu gives them comfort, gives them an atmosphere of being secure.”

If the political field were to open for a real challenge to the premiership, Mr. Gabbay would have to face off against Yair Lapid, an Israeli celebrity, political legacy and former journalist who’s center-right Yesh Atid party had a meteoric rise in its 2013 inception.

“The difference is that Gabbay could be prime minister and Lapid could never be prime minister,” said Gil Hoffman, a political reporter for The Jerusalem Post, and my former colleague.

Where Mr. Lapid is at a disadvantage is that his party is seen to alienate the ultra-Orthodox parties, which despite small political numbers hold great sway in coalition building. “They’re the kingmakers,” Mr. Hoffman said, and added that Mr. Lapid doesn’t have the power to galvanize either the Right or Left.

Labor could build a coalition under Gabbay, which Lapid could never do.”

While the Left is typically dovish, there’s little indication of what Mr. Gabbay actually stands for, and this could work in his favor if he plays it right, Mr. Hoffman said.

“No one really seems to care what he’s actually in favor of. If I were him I would stop mentioning the Palestinian’s because every time he does he loses votes.”

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