Gabbay's Main Chance

In 1981, I accompanied the secretary-general of Israel’s Labor Party, Haim Bar-Lev, on a visit to Jerusalem’s Moroccan fruit market. Bar-Lev, a storied former Army chief of staff, was distributing flowers in an effort to show voters that the leaders of his once dominant party could relate to average people. Four years earlier, the conservative Likud Party had won its first general election, and a new national vote was in the offing. “You trust Arabs?” a fruit vender shouted at Bar-Lev. “You want to give them back the land?” Bar-Lev responded with a fifteen-minute disquisition, with careful distinctions, regarding the meaning of “trust,” “give back,” “land,” and “Arabs.” Exasperated, the vender finally interrupted him. “I still don’t trust them,” he shouted. Likud had mismanaged the economy; inflation was already hurting him. Many thought Labor would sweep back into power. But, after watching the exchange, I realized that the vender’s ten-second shouted question had given Likud a fourteen-minute-fifty-second advantage. It also exposed a widening gap between working-class Israelis, many of them of Moroccan background, and Labor leaders.

Last Monday, Labor members narrowly elected Avi Gabbay, who was not even a member of the Party eight months ago, as their new leader. Seasoned pundits did not expect the win by Gabbay, who rose from a working-class Moroccan family to run Israel’s largest telecommunications company. His election could help Labor close its gap with working-class Israelis. The morning after Gabbay’s win, polls showed support for Labor surging, and Party loyalists grasped that Gabbay might have been sent over by central casting. “It’s already clear,” Haaretz editorialized, thirty-six hours after the win, that Gabbay “has breathed new life into the party.” Fifty years old, balanced, affable, and gregarious, Gabbay projects the gravitas one sensed in Barack Obama during the 2008 primaries. Labor jumped to a projected twenty-four Knesset seats (out of a hundred and twenty) in opinion polls, surpassing the vaguely centrist Yesh Atid Party of Yair Lapid, where many liberals were parking their votes as long as Labor was run by Gabbay’s predecessor.

Gabbay was educated at Israel’s élite Hebrew University, yet he speaks like a man who, though comfortable with street talk, learned early on to weigh his words and go meta on public problems. His acceptance speech seemed to take a page out of Obama’s 2008 playbook: a good-news challenge to skeptics, delivered with liturgical cadences: “To all who doubted the indispensability of Israeli democracy; to all who doubted Labor as alive, kicking, and renewing; to all who believed Israelis had lost their hope for change . . . to all these people, the answer is this night”—in Hebrew, ha’lila ha’zeh, a familiar refrain from the Passover Seder. It is time for the government to think, he rhymed, of “Dimona, not Amona”—that is, on behalf of the struggling towns in the Negev Desert, not settler outposts in the West Bank.

But the parallel with Obama ends there. Gabbay’s story is not that of an unlikely minority candidate who organized at the grassroots. He is the unlikely majority candidate who climbed to the apex of Israel’s biggest telecommunications company. One of eight children, Gabbay grew up in an “asbeston,” a makeshift structure in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Talpiot, in a transit camp designed to absorb Jewish refugees and immigrants. As a Jew of Mizrahi, or Middle Eastern, background, Gabbay was born into Israel’s Jewish underclass, a group that outnumbered the country’s Ashkenazi, or European, Jewish population, but was nevertheless mostly shut out of the economic, cultural, and political élite. An obviously gifted child, Gabbay was recruited to the prestigious (read, German-Jewish) Gymnasia Rehavia, and went on to become an intelligence officer in the Army. He then attended Hebrew University, beginning his career, in the mid-nineties, in the budget department of the Finance Ministry, then in Labor’s hands.

Read on at The New Yorker.