Who is Avi Gabbai, who beat the odds in the Labor primaries and was elected chairman of the Labor party? Does he have a chance of winning an election that pits him against Prime Minister Netanyahu? Do the chareidi parties have reason to fear him? Where does he come from and what has he been doing until today? Here are a few words about Gabbai’s record, and about the amazing ease with which he won his new position.
And so it begins: Yair Lapid has launched a fierce attack against Avi Gabbai. Of course, Lapid was searching for a vulnerability in his new opponent, and he identified Gabbai’s lack of experience as a weakness. Avi Gabbai has experience in the world of business, but he does not have an impressive military record, nor has he ever made any important military or political decisions. Although he did serve as a cabinet minister for a period of time, it was in the position of Minister of Environmental Protection – not a post that makes him fit to serve as prime minister of the country. This was Lapid’s ammunition, as he mocked Gabbai for his lack of experience, loudly proclaiming that Gabbai has never been part of the Security Cabinet, the political body that makes the most important decisions in the State of Israel. The Security Cabinet is small, secretive, and very significant.
Gabbai, the newly elected head of the Labor party, is a headache for Lapid. For the most part, Gabbai is Lapid’s competitor. He does not have a left-wing image, and he has targeted the voters in the middle of the political spectrum, those who might just as easily vote for Likud, Labor, or Yesh Atid. In every election, this sector typically votes for the party that seems to be the rising star, a party that appears out of nowhere and rakes in large amounts of votes, until it evaporates. Lapid relies on that sector for his party’s support. Yesh Atid is considered neither left-wing nor right-wing, but rather a centrist party. Gabbai has now appealed to the voters of Yesh Atid to support the Labor party instead. And there is a good chance that they will listen to him.
Here is a fact: The most recent poll, which was conducted immediately after Gabbai’s electoral victory within his party, reveals that he has attracted a large number of former Yesh Atid voters – more than the Likud, and more than Moshe Kachlon’s party, Kulanu, of which Gabbai was previously a member. Furthermore, more people chose Gabbai than Lapid in response to the question, “Who do you believe is qualified to be the prime minister?” That is a fact that should be a great source of concern to Lapid. To date, Lapid has always been the runner-up to Netanyahu in every poll. True, there was a major gap between them, but Lapid has always been in second place. Yet, Gabbai managed to effect an upheaval immediately after his election. He is now the second most popular candidate for the office of prime minister, and Lapid must content himself with finishing in third place.
This is all quite shocking. Even the pollsters agree that Gabbai’s sharp rise in popularity is highly unusual. Just a few days ago, he was a fairly obscure figure. Although he served as a minister in the current government (a position from which he resigned after one year, when Avigdor Lieberman and his party, Yisrael Beiteinu, joined the coalition), he did not earn much recognition in that capacity. There was simply nothing distinguishing about him. When he entered the race for the leadership of the Labor party, competing against seven other candidates, no one imagined that he would have the slightest chance of progressing to the second round of voting. Amir Peretz seemed to be a far more natural candidate for the position. He is a seasoned politician with a wealth of experience, a man who has served in the past as the chairman of the Labor party and has even held the position of Minister of Defense. It wasn’t clear if Peretz would win immediately or if one of the other candidates would force him to enter a second round of voting, but the fact that the runoff turned out to be a contest between Peretz and Gabbai surprised everyone. An even greater surprise, though, was the fact that Gabbai not only made it to the second round of the primaries, but actually emerged as the victor. Before the primaries, that outcome would have been considered utterly impossible.
Avi Gabbai radiates a certain pleasantness and refinement. He seems to bring a refreshing new spirit to the political scene, which is something that the Labor party’s constituents – and, perhaps, Israeli society as a whole – have long been yearning to see. That is precisely the reason that Yair Lapid is so worried. Netanyahu is less concerned; he is convinced that the Likud will earn more mandates than the Labor party. That, of course, is a logical prediction. But in Israel, after an election, the president selects the prime ministerial candidate who will make the first attempt to assemble a coalition. His choice is based on which candidate seems to have the greatest chance of garnering the support of 61 members of the Knesset to form a coalition. Consequently, the most important factor is the size of the voting blocs – right versus left – rather than the individual parties. And there is no question that the right-wing voting bloc has the majority of Israel’s voters today. Therefore, regardless of how the mandates on the left are divided between Lapid and Gabbai, the next government will probably consist of the same right-wing parties: Netanyahu’s Likud party, Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party, Kachlon’s Kulanu party, and the religious and chareidi parties.
Gabbai’s response to Lapid demonstrated both penetrating insight and a fighting spirit. “Having experience in the cabinet isn’t enough,” he asserted. “It has to be successful experience. You were a member of the cabinet, but your performance was very bad. What is beneficial about that?” Gabbai also quoted the state comptroller’s report about the cabinet’s failings. That was a slap in the face to Yair Lapid, who is not accustomed to receiving responses in kind from the targets of his acerbic tongue. In short, Lapid has discovered that he has entered a new era.
Gabbai’s Goal: Unseating Netanyahu
“We are embarking on a new campaign now, and we will follow it through until we win,” Gabbai declared after his election. “Our target is Netanyahu!”
Gabbai has remained focused on his goal, and he encouraged his voters to keep their sights on their objective: defeating Netanyahu.
“Our campaign to change the government of Israel has begun,” he went on. “We will not wait for the coalition to decide to hold elections! We have begun our journey into the hearts of good Israelis, Israelis who love the state, Israelis who serve the state and care about it, Israelis who contribute to the state every morning when they go out to work, Israelis who serve the security of the State of Israel, Israelis who believe in our ideology but haven’t voted Labor for decades.”
He went on to assure his supporters that he has no intention of resting on his laurels. “We will go from city to city, from neighborhood to neighborhood, and from settlement to settlement. We will persuade voters on an individual basis. We will speak about the reasons to vote for us, not the reasons not to vote for him. We will talk about the things that we will do differently. We will talk about our plans, our goals, and the values we promote. We will describe how we will care for the security of the state and the lives of its citizens, how we will work to make life in Israel better, how we will see to it that young people aren’t afraid to begin their lives here, and how we will make sure that our children will live here and will not choose to live in Berlin instead. At this moment, I call upon every citizen of Israel, among whom the current government has worked to sow division; it has divided the right from the left, the religious form the secular, Sephardim from Ashkenazim, and Jews from Arabs. It has created false divisions, it has abandoned its citizens, and it has created rifts between us in order to retain its power. Now is the time to connect to each other once again.”
Gabbai hopes to expand the ranks of the Labor party by attracting members of the Likud as well. “From this day on, the Labor party is your home,” he proclaimed, “and it is my home as well. We are expecting to be facing a difficult journey into the hearts of those who are not convinced. We know that we will come to party meetings and find only ten people there. We will face endless opposition and cynicism, but throughout the journey, we will continue being positive. That is the only way for us to reach the hearts of the people who haven’t voted for us. In order to put an end to the Netanyahu regime, we will have to join forces. It is a job that will take time and diligent hard work. The time has come for a new leadership, one that places people – the citizens of Israel – at the top of its agenda. We must create a leadership that will work for the people, not for the sake of being reelected. We need a leadership that unites, a leadership that is capable of making important decisions for the sake of the public as a whole. We need a leadership that will care about Dimona, not just Amona. We need a leadership that is capable of resolving the problem of the cancer-stricken children in Hadassah Hospital. We need a leadership with integrity, that understands that if your cousin is managing coalition negotiations for you, he can’t represent a submarine company at the same time.”
Let me direct your attention to the last few lines of Gabbai’s speech. First, he began playing on the widespread envy for the settlements, which many believe are receiving huge allocations of funds. In response to that, Gabbai proclaimed that his government will care not only for “Amona,” the paradigm of a settlement, but also for “Dimona,” the town that is the very symbol of a backward city. Dimona is at the southernmost end of the country (if one doesn’t count Eilat). Its residents live in poverty, and it is a difficult place to live. Amona is the settlement whose plight occupied the attention of the entire country for many days, until its residents were promised an alternative site for their community, which will cost the country huge sums of money.
Gabbai also mentioned the plight of the children in Hadassah Hospital, which has evoked a tremendous amount of outrage and sadness throughout the country. And then, of course, he alluded to the submarine affair. He chose his words carefully, refraining from saying that Binyomin Netanyahu had committed a crime, but his intent was clear: One of the suspects in the submarine scandal is a relative of Netanyahu who also represented him in the coalition negotiations.
An Unusual Resignation
Avi Gabbai is everything that Binyomin Netanyahu is not. He is also everything that Yair Lapid is not. One of eight children, Gabbai was born in the neighborhood of Baka in Yerushalayim. During the Labor party primaries, in which he vied with Amir Peretz for the party leadership, he was accompanied by his mother at many of his public appearances, a fact that certainly earned him additional popularity. As a child, Gabbai and his family lived in a rundown apartment that also housed his maternal grandparents.
Gabbai was discharged from the army after becoming an officer, albeit not a particularly high-ranking one. After his military service, he studied economics in Hebrew University and quickly found employment in the Finance Ministry. During his time there, Gabbai was one of the young officials who always manage to anger the government ministers with their efforts to dictate how the ministries should be run.
Four and a half years later, in 1999, Gabbai began working for Bezeq, Israel’s government-run telecommunications company, which was then in the process of becoming privatized. His first job in the company was as a senior aide to its CEO. He was later promoted to the position of vice president of human resources, which he held for half a year. For the following three and a half years, until 2003, he served as the vice president of economics and regulation. He then went on to serve as the CEO of Bezeq International. In 2007, Gabbai was appointed to the highest position in the company, serving as the CEO of Bezeq. The prevailing sentiment was that Gabbai demonstrated excellence in his positions in Bezeq, although his political opponents, of course, have now begun investigating the salaries he received during his employment there, as well as the amount of his severance pay.
During the elections for the current Knesset, Gabbai joined the list of close friends of Moshe Kachlon who responded to his call to establish a new, cleaner, more socially oriented political party. This was a goal that was highly suited to Gabbai himself. He had developed a relationship with Kachlon during his time in Bezeq, when Kachlon was a member of the Likud party and served as Minister of Communications. He helped Kachlon establish the Kulanu party, without even asking to be included on the party’s list. Indeed, Gabbai was not one of the members of the Knesset from the Kulanu party, which received ten seats in the elections. However, he was given a ministerial portfolio. It is not necessary to be a member of the Knesset in order to hold a ministerial position, and Kachlon offered Gabbai one of the three portfolios that the Kulanu party received. The other two went to Kachlon himself, who became the Minister of Finance, and another member of the party, Major General (Res.) Yoav Galant, who was appointed Minister of Housing. Gabbai accepted the offer, and when the new government came to power, he held the position of Minister of Environmental Protection.
Was he a good minister? There are differing opinions on that subject. He made a tremendous effort to promote many projects involving environmental protection, recycling, and reducing pollution. He had extensive involvement in the electricity and gas markets, and he was a fierce opponent – the only one in the cabinet – to the natural gas agreement that occupied the government’s attention for many months. He introduced the law that requires all of us to pay 10 agurot for every plastic bag we receive in a supermarket. The goal of the law is to diminish the use of plastic bags, which are a source of pollution, but the bottom line is that we are paying for it…
Last May, Gabbai did something almost unheard of: He resigned from his position as a minister in the government, as a protest against the inclusion of Avigdor Lieberman and his right-wing party in the coalition and the government. You may remember that Netanyahu became involved in a dispute with Moshe “Bogie” Yaalon, the defense minister at the time, and appointed Lieberman to replace him. Gabbai felt that this crossed a red line, and he proceeded to resign from the government. That is evidence enough of his claim that he is not a Likud follower or a supporter of the political right. Even then, Gabbai decried the growing “extremism” of the government, and insisted that he could no longer be a member of it. He proceeded to give up his position, and he vanished from the public scene. Since then, no one heard from him – until three months ago, when he announced that he was joining the Labor party.
Seeking Shas Voters
This past week, in response to a question from a journalist, Gabbai said, “When I first announced my candidacy, I was told that my expectations were too high. But all of the knowledge, the methods, and the strategies that led to my current victory will be put to use in my campaign against the Likud. I am very optimistic. We are setting out on a serious campaign that will bring in new voters. We must cause people from other parties to vote for the Labor party. I am speaking about bringing in votes from the Likud, from Kulanu, from Yisroel Beiteinu, and from Shas.”
Yes, you read that correctly: Gabbai hopes to siphon off votes from his previous party, Kulanu, as well as from Shas. When he was asked if he would work together with Moshe Kachlon, he replied, “On the day we have 30 mandates, we will negotiate with all the relevant parties in the Knesset.” Gabbai claims that he was congratulated on his victory by everyone in the government, including Yaakov Litzman.
We, the chareidi sector, are most interested in his views on matters of religion and state. In that area, too, Gabbai tries to please everyone. He claims to be in favor of public transportation on Shabbos, but he emphasizes the fact that he hails from a family that maintains its traditions. He recited the brocha of Shehecheyanu in his victory speech, albeit without the Name of Hashem. That alone grated on many chiloni ears, and Gabbai was quick to defend himself. “What’s wrong with that?” he demanded. “I am Jewish and I come from a traditional family!” His wife added that they keep kosher at home.
Still, Gabbai does not appear to know very much about Yiddishkeit. He seems to be a typical Israeli who has not had the opportunity to learn much. At the same time, he has never come across as anti-religious. But when he speaks about these issues, he must be careful, since his efforts to please everyone might have the opposite effect and cause him to lose the support of every sector. The chilonim might abandon him because he portrays himself as “traditional,” while the religious sector might reject him because of his views on Shabbos. When the time comes, Gabbai will certainly have to decide how to deal with this issue. At the moment, though, it is too early for him to do so. And it still doesn’t seem that he will be the one to assemble the next government. Let us hope that if he sits in the opposition, which seems the most likely outcome, he will be prudent and circumspect in his approach to the most important values of chareidi Jewry – as was his predecessor, Yitzchak Herzog.
As of now, Gabbai has been showered with adoration from his fellow politicians – with the exception of Netanyahu, who has remained silent, and Lapid, who has attacked him vociferously. Even more than that, the media is fawning over him. All of Netanyahu’s detractors will certainly do their best to help Gabbai and the Labor party succeed. Gabbai will enjoy a lengthy grace period from the media, who will set their sights on freeing the country from Netanyahu. He will be the country’s new darling, just as Arik Sharon was in his day and Ehud Olmert in his own time.
Still, there is someone who has already managed to chip away at Gabbai’s public image. In his victory speech, Gabbai made the following eloquent pronouncement: “For anyone who has cast doubts on the vitality of Israeli democracy, for anyone who thought that the people of Israel have lost their desire for change, for anyone who believed that a positive campaign would not win an election – for all of those people, tonight is the answer.” A certain Israeli journalist felt that the words had a familiar ring, and he embarked on a search for their source. He soon discovered that very similar words had been spoken by…Barack Obama. In his own victory speech in 2008, Obama declared, “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.” That discovery was certainly awkward for Gabbai.
Reaching Out in All Directions
Perhaps Avi Gabbai is a success story, but even more importantly, there is a lesson to be learned from his stunning victory – the power of aspiring for a goal. Aspirations and ambitions are the basis of all achievements. If a person does not aspire to anything, he will achieve nothing. To paraphrase the baalei mussar, a person who doesn’t aspire to become the chief of staff will not even be an officer. Avi Gabbai had ambitions, and those ambitions carried him to success.
When Gabbai served as a minister in the government, he was admired by the entire Knesset. No one could find anything about him to criticize. Even now, we in the chareidi parties felt that he was probably the least of all evils, as far as we were concerned. Nevertheless, our sympathy for him faded when Ehud Barak took his side and became one of his chief supporters. We will never forget Barak’s aggressively anti-religious campaign during his own bid for the office of prime minister. Gabbai’s talk about public transportation on Shabbos also pained us deeply. It seems to indicate that even a person who comes from a traditional home is not immune to the prevailing sentiments.
All in all, Gabbai’s victory demonstrates just how easy it is to rise to the highest position in the Labor party and to become a candidate for the office of prime minister. The Labor party has only 52,505 voters in total, and only 30,916 of them took advantage of their right to vote in the primaries. That means that 58.8 percent of the party’s voters determined the winner of the primary. Gabbai received 16,080 votes, making up 52 percent of the total, while Amir Peretz received 14,374 votes, or 47 percent. In theory, if the three largest kollelim in the country – Mir, Sorotzkin, and Yissochor B’Ohalecha – registered for the Labor party, and all the yungeleit and their wives voted in the primaries, Rav Shalom Ber Sorotzkin would defeat Gabbai and Peretz together and would become the Labor candidate for prime minister.
The Labor primaries were actually an exercise in voting against a candidate, rather than voting for one. Gabbai was supported by everyone who despised Amir Peretz or loathed Lapid. And in the end, all their efforts may yield nothing. Even if a left-wing candidate stands a chance of unseating Netanyahu, the right-wing bloc will still probably be larger. Nevertheless, some of Yesh Atid’s voters are likely to return to the Labor party, which will deflate some of Yair Lapid’s pompousness.
In conclusion, here is one good thing about Avi Gabbai: During his tenure as a government minister, I was asked by Rav Eliezer Bodenheim, the founder of the Genizah Haklalit in Eretz Yisroel, to help him receive an exemption from the recycling tax in the country. The tax is generally levied on those who choose to bury materials that could be recycled, but the Genizah Haklalit buries shaimos because of the halachic requirement to do so. The tax constituted a large portion of the organization’s expenses, and Rav Bodenheim argued that it wasn’t fair for them to be subject to the requirement.
Let me explain a bit more: The State of Israel has joined the ranks of the “enlightened” countries of the world by imposing mandatory recycling of paper, plastic, bottles, and the like on its populace. If a person decides, for his own reasons, to bury those items instead of recycling them, he is required to pay a hefty fee. There are two organizations in Israel that deal with collecting shaimos. They are responsible for the massive receptacles for shaimos that can be found outside every large shul. These organizations have been subject to the tax, despite the fact that recycling shaimos, from a halachic standpoint, is not an option.
In response to Rav Bodenheim’s request, I met with him along with several other people, and the meeting resulted in a consensus that this case should be an exception to the law. Some suggested various methods of recycling shaimos through the halachic mechanism of grama, but those ideas were rejected. Ultimately, the director-general of the Ministry of Religious Affairs, attorney Oded Palus, advised us to compose a bill and to try to advance it in the Knesset. The language of the bill was prepared by MK Yoav Ben-Tzur, and we began efforts to promote it in the Knesset. The key to the bill’s success was gaining the approval of the Minister of Environmental Protection, Avi Gabbai, whose position would likely determine whether the bill would be approved. Gabbai was to be the one who would decide whether the members of the coalition would support the law. He met with us, listened to our request, and understood the idea – and we were pleasantly surprised by his response.
Gabbai’s only question was whether it was necessary to institute a law providing for the exemption or if his ministry could simply issue an ordinance to that effect. On the day that he decided to resign from the government, he signed that very ordinance. That was actually a show of integrity: Since he had already decided that Rav Bodenheim was correct, and since he would no longer be the minister responsible for the matter after that day was done, he made sure to sign the order that he had promised to issue in order to see to it that his word was kept. That is Avi Gabbai, the new chairman of the Labor party.