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It should be recalled, following the recent election of Avi Gabbay as the new leader of Israel’s Labor Party, that this socialist bloc was known for its leftist-dominated politics for long decades soon after the establishment of Israel and until the rightists came to power at the height of the 1977 general elections, better known as the ‘Likud coup’.

It is well-known that the Labor party led Israel’s expansionist wars since 1948, through 1956, 1967 and 1973 while strengthening and expanding the Israeli military and security complex as well as developing its growing nuclear arsenal. Today, in the shadow of the most extreme right-wing government in Israel’s history, many may believe that its leader and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not the right person to deal with regional changes, exploit successive opportunities, and “reach” at a final political settlement with Arab states.

The victory of the former businessman Gabbay (a Jew of Moroccan origin) was significant after he beat his rival Amir Peretz by 52.4 per cent to 47.6 per cent of the vote. The party leader, Isaac Herzog, lost the election in the first round after being sharply criticised for attempting to negotiate for the party to partner with Netanyahu’s extreme right-wing “Likud coalition”. Gabbay, who had once served in the “coalition”, resigned in May 2016 over the appointment of the extreme right fanatic Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the Israel Beitunu party, accusing the ruling coalition of “leading Israel to destruction”.

Upon declaring victory, Gabbay announced the drive to unseat Netanyahu, pledging to win the next general elections. He said: “The state of Israel is headed to elections, but we don’t know the date yet. The party needs at least 100,000 members by the next elections, nearly twice its current number, in order to win 30 (Knesset) seats and replace the government of Netanyahu.” In an interview with the Ynet news website, he further said: “My positions are the positions of the Labor party, two states for two peoples”. Gabbay, however, added that “Jerusalem will remain unified in any scenario and there will be no negotiations about it”. All said, and contrary to Likud’s position, he affirmed that “the Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is certainly a peace partner”.

Interestingly enough, only a day after Gabbay won the Labor leadership, a few months after joining it, two public opinion polls conducted by Israeli channels T.V. Two and Ten showed that the Labor party had strengthened its power ahead of the ‘There is a Future’ party headed by Knesset member Yair Lapid. According to the Channel 2 poll, if the Israeli general elections are held now, the Likud will win 25 seats, Labor 20, There Is A Future 18 seats, the Jewish Home headed by the most extreme, Minister of Education Naftali Bennett, 13 seats, and Yisrael Beitunu, six seats. The Channel Ten poll shows that if elections are held now, Likud will win 13 seats, Labor 24, There is a Future 16, the Jewish Home 14 and Yisrael Beitunu seven seats. Those figures point to a less rightist trend than that of the present ruling coalition.

Gabbay’s victory marks a dramatic change for Israelis indicating that other options are available, other than Netanyahu. The new young Labor leader beat the older historic leaders of the party, reflecting the Israeli society’s desire for change. In this context, Israeli dauly Haaretz’s political journalist Yossi Verter says: “Gabbay’s victory was made possible by the electoral, popular and propaganda of the lowest level to which the Labour party had deteriorated into. The party needed an electric shock, and this is what happened”.

‘Despair’ and ‘personal policy’

Gideon Rahat, professor of Political Science at the Hebrew University in occupied Jerusalem says in comments about Gabbay’s election that “there are two explanations, one is ‘despair’ and the other is the ‘personal policy’ where the personality is more important than the political one”. Political analyst Avraham Diskin describes Gabbay as “a new face, highly eloquent, determined and very intelligent, who was not a member of the Labor party, but a person who symbolises hope”.

To categorise the Israeli political parties in terms of Right and Left is rather misleading. The Labor party, ideologically leftist, believes like other rightist parties in the ‘value’ of Jewish colonisation, that occupied Jerusalem should be united as the capital of Israel and that the Palestinians from 1948 areas cannot return home. This ‘leftist’ party was the first to implant the Separatist Wall at the heart of the West Bank. But with the extremist Right beginning to alienate the regional and world communities as a result of its practices against the Palestinian people, it is normal to see the impact of its policies on Israelis, which allows people like Gabbay to win and to provide him with the chance to unseat Netanyahu, if he knows how to invest well in it.

Professor As’ad Abdul Rahman is the chairman of the Palestinian Encyclopaedia.