When new Labor chairman Avi Gabbay opined earlier this week that Israel’s Left “forgot what it means to be Jewish,” echoing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s infamous hot mic comment two decades ago, jaws dropped among dovish pundits and supporters of the center-left party.
“In ’99 Netanyahu was caught on camera saying ‘the left forgot what it means to be Jews,’” Gabbay said at an event at Ben Gurion University in Beersheba (Netanyahu actually spoke in 1997). “You know what the left did in response to this? Forgot what it means to be a Jew.”
The Labor leader further charged that his party had moved away from Judaism.
The response from the left was less than enthusiastic.
“If Gabbay doesn’t soon remember that he’s the chairman of the Labor Party, not Likud, he won’t even be worthy of being a deputy to Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, let alone becoming the country’s leader,” the left-wing Haaretz newspaper wrote in a scathing lead editorial on Wednesday.
Observers have noted that if his move was intended as a coldly calculated political move meant to snatch votes away from Likud and Kulanu, it was ill-though out. But they may just be looking in the wrong directions.
Gabbay, whose only political experience was a stint as a non-MK minister under Netanyahu for the Kulanu party before quitting in protest in 2016, has become something of an enigma since ascending to the Labor Party’s top position earlier this year.
He has made a series of comments seen as shifting his party to the right, such as expressing opposition to both evacuating settlements under a future peace deal and sitting with Arab parties in a future coalition.
While those statements are considered shrewd moves aimed at taking a chunk out Likud and Kulanu’s voter bases, the same can’t be said of his comment parroting Netanyahu, which ostensibly makes him little more than a pale imitation in the eyes of Likud supporters, while also further alienating his own base.
But while some have been quick to dismiss the statement as another fumble by a bumbling political novice, they make perfect sense if it’s not Likud voters he is courting but rather those of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party.
Netanyahu’s original comment about the left forgetting what it means to be Jewish was made to venerated kabbalist and Mizrahi Rabbi Yitzhak Kaduri — whose amulets and political support for the Shas party are credited with the ultra-Orthodox party’s rejuvenation in the 1996 elections.
In turning up the volume on traditionalism and Jewish values, Gabbay may have been looking to cherry pick voters from the deeply troubled Shas party, whose numbers have been dropping in the opinion polls, and whose Mizrahi Orthodox constituency is seen as all but up for grabs.
Shas: On the way out?
Gabbay’s pivot comes as the seven-seat ultra-Orthodox party, whose voters have included both Haredi and non-Haredi Middle Eastern Israeli Jews, is in the throes of turmoil.
Its party leader, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, is being investigated for corruption allegations, again, after serving a stint in prison for bribery for crimes he committed while serving in the same political office.
Moreover, a hot mic tape aired by Hadashot News (formerly Channel 2) last week captured Deri berating Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar as a power-hungry liar with no followers to speak of, raising an outcry. The Shas party leader was criticized by journalists at the ultra-Orthodox Kol Berama radio station, prompting Shas rabbis to gather signatures calling for the beloved station’s closure — adding more fuel to the fire.
The party has also been weakened in influence by the 2014 death of its longtime spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, and was recently mired in some controversy over the resignation of an MK who admitted to attending his nephew’s gay wedding.
Enter Gabbay, who has touted his Moroccan heritage and his strong Mizrahi identity, poor upbringing and social-minded economic policies. His new focus on Jewish tradition could capitalize on the discontent of traditionally-minded Shas voters, many of whom have working class backgrounds mirroring Gabbay’s.
And if the new Labor party chairman defies traditional left-right characterization, so do Shas voters, whose party has sat in both Labor-led and Likud governments and has been helmed by both the dovish Deri and hawkish Eli Yishai, indicating the base may care more for identity politics than the identity of its politics.
How to beat Yair Lapid?
For Gabbay, a glance at the (predictably unreliable) polls in recent months underlines a problem for his self-stated efforts to replace Netanyahu in the next elections. His Zionist Union amalgam, which makes up the Labor and Hatnuah parties, is neck-and-neck with the centrist Yesh Atid, while Likud retains a several seat lead over both.
Snatching several seats from Shas would give Gabbay an edge over Yesh Atid, with voters from the Mizrahi party unlikely to vote for Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid, who famously told Deri in pre-election debate in 2015 he would “rehabilitate” him, in a comment seen as exemplifying Ashkenazi middle-class condescension.
Gabbay would still need to woo a portion of the Likud base to win, and his ability to form a coalition in the future still appears far-fetched (both Yisrael Beytenu and Kulanu have pledged not to join his coalition, though Gabbay has claimed all will “line up to join” should he win).
Whether or not he succeeds in drawing Likud voters will largely depend on the outcome of Netanyahu’s corruption probes, and whether the prime minister is indicted.
In the interim, gutting Shas to bump him up over his main centrist rival could serve as a rewarding pastime for Gabbay — unless he drives away the center-left in the process.