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Avi Gabbay, Israel’s Emmanuel Macron, Wins Labor Party Top Spot in Surprise Victory

A sophisticated social media campaign propelled the newcomer past the party’s elite and its candidate, Amir Peretz

Liel Leibovitz
July 10, 2017
Courtesy: The Israeli Labor Party
Courtesy: The Israeli Labor Party
Courtesy: The Israeli Labor Party
Courtesy: The Israeli Labor Party

Avi Gabbay just became Israel’s Emmanuel Macron.

Having joined the Labor Party just six months ago, Gabbay pulled off an upset victory tonight, besting the veteran politician and former party head Amir Peretz in the second round of voting. A businessman best known for his stint as the CEO of Bezeq, the telecommunications giant, he entered politics in 2015 as one of the founders of the Kulanu party, and served as Minister of Environmental Protection in Netanyahu’s government. In May of 2016, when the hardliner Avigdor Lieberman was appointed Minister of Defense, Gabbay quit in protest and, a few months later, joined Labor.

When he announced his intention to seek his new party’s leadership, most polls predicted a stinging defeat. Last week, however, he attracted more than 8,000 voters in the first round of the party’s primaries, securing a spot in the run-off elections. Tonight, he doubled that number: 16,080 registered party members showed up to announce that they were fed up with veteran candidates and reigning elites, giving the inexperienced but promising politician a shot.

It should come as little surprise to anyone who has followed Gabbay’s campaign. A master of the soft populist touch, he showed impressive command of social media, appealing directly to voters and bypassing the party’s traditional nodes of power, all of which strongly supported Peretz. Just yesterday, for example, he took to Facebook to share Peretz’s post, asking the public for help finding his son’s lost dog. The sweet gesture was widely reported in the media and circulated online, giving Gabbay priceless publicity at the eleventh hour.

Labor, of course, is far from its past glory days, and it’s anyone’s guess whether Gabbay would succeed in sweeping significant numbers of Israelis back to a party most consider moribund. And Gabbay’s inexperience may very well haunt him when he’s called upon to make hard decisions about policy and ideology. For now, however, he deserves all the credit for doing something many thought impossible: making Labor exciting again, if only for one evening.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.