Israeli elections 2019Still, party backs leader over safe slots on Knesset slate

Over boos and whistles, Gabbay tells angry, divided Labor he can beat Netanyahu

Pandemonium at conference highlights bitter discontent among Labor activists at party infighting, collapse in polls; MK Cabel: We made a mistake choosing you

Raoul Wootliff is a former Times of Israel political correspondent and Daily Briefing podcast producer.

Avi Gabbay, leader of the Labor Party, delivers a speech over boos and whistles at a Labor party conference in Tel Aviv on January 10, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Avi Gabbay, leader of the Labor Party, delivers a speech over boos and whistles at a Labor party conference in Tel Aviv on January 10, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Labor leader Avi Gabbay was met with boos and whistles at what was meant to be a festive conference on Wednesday night, as he sought to persuade his bitter and divided party that he can defeat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in April’s elections.

Facing calls for him to step aside as the once-mighty political force wallows in dismal poll predictions, Gabbay attempted to ignore the pandemonium and present himself as a credible alternative to Netanyahu, whose Likud party appears on course to reelection.

Speaking before some 2,000 members of Labor’s Central Committee, Gabbay urged the leaders of two other rival parties to join forces with him in a combined effort to unseat Netanyahu, declaring that Israelis want to live in a “normal country.”

But Gabbay, who has seen his party slip to single digits in recent polls, faced a fractious reception as he took to the stage at a conference titled “Committed to a change in Israel,” in Tel Aviv’s Exhibition Grounds.

With the party split over Gabbay’s prospects in the elections and future at Labor’s helm, activists faced off against each other in the hall, and against the various speakers at the podium, with boos and shouts almost drowning out critics and backers of the beleaguered leader and Gabbay himself.

Gabbay, who last week broke up his party’s Zionist Union political alliance with the Hatnua party, didn’t let the hecklers stop him, instead declaring that the criticism showed a healthy democratic process. “I want to welcome the voiced opinions and different views and even the shouts of criticism,” he began.

“This is the ultimate proof that we are a true democratic party, and I tell you: Never stop expressing positions and opinions.”

He added ruefully, however, “Those who whistle will only give headlines to the newspapers.”

Labor MK Eitan Cabel (right) confronts Avi Gabbay (seated in red tie), party head, at a Labor conference in Tel Aviv on January 10, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Gabbay powered on over the noise, repeating the message that “only the Labor Party can bring change,” and appealing to former IDF chief Benny Gantz — who recently formed the Israel Resilience party — and MK Yair Lapid, the head of Yesh Atid, to bring their political parties into a united front against Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party. Both Gantz and Lapid are understood to oppose any alliance with Gabbay and the center-left Labor, since they are trying to capture votes from left and right; he has said he would insist on heading any such partnership.

“You both saw this week the horror show by the prime minister,” Gabbay said, referring to a live TV broadcast Monday by Netanyahu, in which the prime minister claimed he was not given fair treatment in corruption investigations against him in which police have recommended indictments.

“In a normal country, the prime minister doesn’t attack the law authorities,” Gabbay said, directing his comments at Gantz and Lapid. “I know, and you know, that millions of Israelis miss having a normal country. We are the only ones who are committed to change in Israel, and I call on you — join the change and don’t join the Netanyahu government. They will not prevent us from victory.”

With the boos continuing, mainly from the party’s youth wing, Gabbay, somewhat ironically, took a swipe at Gantz for not yet having made a public address and still managing to steal votes from Labor.

“Voices that left us today are parked in various parties with a fashionable and mysterious atmosphere, those that hide behind silence and sexy smiles — but we are going to bring everyone back and then bring more and more and more and more!” Gabbay promised.

“Most of the voters for Lapid and Gantz don’t want their votes to go to a Netanyahu-led coalition,” Gabbay added. “We’re the only ones who promise a coalition of change. Instead of fighting here,” he pleaded, “let’s explain that to the voters.”

The pandemonium continued after Gabbay’s speech, as veteran Labor MK Eitan Cabel took to the stage, and declared that the party leader was incapable of delivering victory and should never have been elected as its head.

Labor MK Eitan Cabel speaks at Tel Aviv event launching the opposition party’s election campaign on January 10, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“I admit, I made a mistake. We all made a mistake. I made a mistake when I supported you,” Cabel told the seething hall, to a roar of disapproval from what seemed like a slight majority of the activists.

“You broke up the Zionist Union without consultations. You led, you navigated. This failure is completely Gabbay’s,” Cabel stormed. “We can still save these elections. This is the great moment, to create a front against Netanyahu in which the Labor Party is the central axle.”

Cabel also waved over his head what he said were the results of a polygraph test and accused Gabbay of being “a liar”: The MK recently claimed the party leader had threatened to bring Labor down if its leaders failed to support him, a claim Gabbay denied. Cabel said he had taken a lie-detector test to prove he was telling the truth, and that the results in his hand were evidence that Gabbay had indeed made the threat.

Cabel, who entered the Knesset as a Labor MK in 1996 and has remained with the party ever since, nonetheless promised not to jump ship. “No one will make me leave my home,” he bellowed.

Gabbay broke up the Zionist Union, humiliating Hatnua’s Tzipi Livni by announcing the move on live television in her presence without having informed her in advance.

Rather than boost Labor in opinion polls, the split has reduced the party’s expected showing to only seven or eight seats in the April 9 elections. In the outgoing 120-member Knesset, the Zionist Union holds 24 seats.

Despite the far-from-welcoming reception, Gabbay told The Times of Israel on his way out of the conference hall that he was not disappointed. “Why would I be? There is great support for me and more importantly great support for the party,” he said.

And even amid the disunited atmosphere, Gabbay succeeded in passing his proposal for a new party constitution, giving him considerable power over party institutions, and a separate motion allowing him to reserve three spots — two, 10 and 16 — on the electoral slate for his preferred candidates who will not have to run in the primaries.

Activists at the Labor Party conference in Tel Aviv on January 10, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

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