Avi Gabbay

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“Palestinian incitement must end immediately…and part of ending the incitement is ending the incentives. The Palestinian Authority must stop paying their terrorists. On our side, we must stop building these caravans on hilltops and glorifying these remote settlements because they do not provide any security value to Israel.”

"We have to understand a very simple thing - we are the strong ones here. They (the Arabs) always scare us, but we are the stronger ones. We do not have to be afraid of them – the Arabs have to be afraid of us. One cannot compromise [on the issue of security]. One cannot just say, 'It's okay, I understand, they fired only one missile.' There is no such thing. If they fire one missile - you fire twenty. This is the only way they understand in the Middle East.”

“I believe in territorial concessions, and in negotiations with the Palestinians. I also believe in a solution based on two states for two peoples, and a united Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty."

You are Avi Gabbay, Head of Israel’s Labor Party

Early Life and Career

You were born in 1967 in Jerusalem, the seventh of eight children in a family headed by immigrant parents from Morocco. Like almost all young Israelis, you served in the army, reaching the rank of lieutenant in the Intelligence Corps. After you left the army you attended and graduated from Israel’s Hebrew University, majoring in economics as an undergraduate, and later earning a Master’s in Business Administration.

You worked first for Israel’s Finance Ministry before you took a job in 1998 with Israel’s national telecommunications firm, Bezeq, as Assistant to the CEO. You moved up the ranks quickly, taking over as CEO of Bezeq’s International Division in 2003, and finally moving to overall CEO in 2007. You served in this role for six years, and during that time the company was enormously successful, making you a very wealthy man. You certainly had to enjoy the irony that you were now chief of the same company for which your father worked as a technician throughout your childhood. You left Bezeq in 2013, tried unsuccessfully to purchase El Al, Israel’s national airline, and finally decided in 2015 to enter politics, working with a prominent longtime Likud Party leader, Moshe Kahlon, to form a centrist party called Kulanu.

Your Early Political Career

You and Kahlon attracted some other well-known people to your ranks, including former Israeli Ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren. Collectively, you gained a significant following, making a big splash in the 2015 elections by winning 10 of the 120 seats in the Israeli Parliament (or “Knesset”). This put your brand-new party in the seat of power, as Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud Party needed your party in order to attain the required majority of Knesset seats that allowed them to form a government. To entice your party to join the new coalition, Mr. Kahlon was awarded the prestigious Finance Ministry, you were chosen as Minister of the Environment, and members of your party also secured the ministries of the Economy and of Construction.

Your tenure as a cabinet minister in Netanyahu’s government would be short, however, barely more than a year. You felt that Prime Minister Netanyahu only paid lip service to your desire to cut back excessive environmental regulation, and you were the only cabinet member to vote against a major natural gas deal that you felt would be far too expensive. You later said that the Prime Minister seemed to thrive on sowing the seeds of division. “Every week it’s like something against somebody,” you said in an interview, “it’s against the left, it’s against the media, against Arabs, and against, against, against.” The final blow, however, was when Prime Minister Netanyahu turned to his old political ally, Avigdor Lieberman, who had left the coalition after the 2015 elections. Lieberman, who heads the “Israel Beitainu” Party (made up largely of Russian emigres to Israel) was offered the highly prestigious and powerful Defense Ministry, a portfolio that Netanyahu had kept for himself as bait to lure the Zionist Union Party into his coalition. You felt that Lieberman was unqualified for the position, and you strongly opposed what you saw as his hardline nationalist views. So, in May 2016 you quit the cabinet and the Kulanu Party, and after taking some time to consider your next move, you decided that you wanted to run for Prime Minister, and in December 2016 you joined the Labor Party. In order to understand the significance of this move, we must take a brief detour to talk about the Labor Party.

History of the Labor Party

In order to fully understand the creation of the Labor Party, we must first learn about Mapai. Mapai was a left-wing party that was created in 1930. In Israel’s first election in 1949, Mapai won the majority of the government with 35.7% and 46 seats. David Ben-Gurion was a major leader of the party and became Israel’s first Prime Minister. From this point until 1965, Mapai had significant control in the government, exercising a major influence on Israeli politics throughout the nation’s early history.

The center-left Labor Party was formed in 1965 when Mapai combined with the more centrist Labor Unity Party. Labor is both a social democratic and Zionist party. Until 1977, all of Israel’s Prime Ministers came from the Labor Party. It is important to mention here that the Labor Party consisted primarily of European, or “Ashkenazi” Jews. These Jews tended to be of higher class and economic status, largely owing to the fact that they tended to be more educated and they had been in Israel longer, allowing them to establish political structures and build wealth.

The Likud Party consisted of Jews who immigrated to Israel later and were from North Africa, the so-called “Sefardic” or “Mizrahi” Jews. The Jews that supported the Likud party were of lower economic status and had less power prior to the election of 1977. It was not until the election of 1977 that the Likud Party had its first victory over Labor. It was the first time that Jews from a lower socio-economic status and newer to the land of Israel had control over government, and Likud’s victory led the Israeli government to shift from the left to the right. In the ensuing years, this shift would become more pronounced, as in the 40+ years from 1977 through 2018, the Labor Party would hold the Prime Ministership for fewer than ten years. The Party was so weak, in fact, that some wondered if it would continue to exist, and it was into this bleak picture that you entered in 2017.

Joining the Labor Party

You announced in March 2017 that you would run for the Labor Party leadership, and in July you defeated the former party leader, Amir Peretz, and succeeded Isaac Herzog as the head of the Labor Party. As you well know, this is neither the best context or the strongest foundation from which to mount a challenge to someone who had been Prime Minister for more than eight successive years at the time that you took on party leadership, a man who has proven himself to be a tenacious political fighter. However, Netanyahu has been embroiled in charges of corruption, and there seems to be some reason for you to hope that if charges are actually brought, that Netanyahu could be politically damaged or even destroyed.

Your first big decision as Head of the Labor Party came almost immediately. For the 2015 elections, Labor affiliated with the Ha’tnua Party headed by former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. When you were elected head of Labor, replacing Isaac Herzog, head of the Opposition in the Knesset, one might have thought that you would naturally take on that role. However, you are not a member of parliament, so you weren’t eligible. The was a lot of speculation about which Labor Party Knesset member you would choose to be the official head of the opposition, but Livni decided to force the issue, announcing that her party would leave the alliance if she wasn’t chosen as Opposition Leader. You accepted her terms, and in your agreement with Livni, it was decided that she would be the parliamentary opposition leader but that in the next elections, scheduled for November 2019, you would be the bloc’s candidate for Prime Minister. You apparently felt that having the popular and esteemed Ms. Livni as an ally was worth bowing to her wishes, even though her party is rather small, only holding five seats.

You and Livni also made the decision to resist Netanyahu’s appeal for early elections in 2017. Your calculation was that he was trying to schedule elections before a possible corruption trial that could play out very badly for the Prime Minister. You and Livni are playing a long game, giving Netanyahu another year in office in exchange for the prospect of running against a weakened Netanyahu in 2019.

Your Stance on Israel-Palestine

As noted above, you are a supporter of a two-state negotiated settlement between Israel and a demilitarized state of Palestine. You believe that the major West Bank settlement blocs, as well as the Jordan Valley should remain in Israel’s hands. Your vision for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement is that it would be part of a regional settlement that—you hope—would strengthen the major Sunni Muslim powers in the region, chiefly Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt, and would accordingly weaken Shi’ite Iran and Hezbollah. You have said that if negotiations were to fail with the Palestinians, that Israel should engage in a unilateral disengagement from areas of the West Bank, and you have stated that Israel must withdraw from the so-called “isolated” settlement outposts in the West Bank that are outside the major settlement blocs, stating that these outposts do nothing to enhance Israel’s security. Finally, in the wake of the American decision to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem you stated that an “undivided Jerusalem” was more important to you than a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians. You later amended this statement by declaring that the “undivided Jerusalem” you spoke of did not include Jerusalem’s Arab neighborhoods.

Character-playing notes

Your position in the simulation is a delicate one, given the fact that you’re not a member of the Israeli administration, and you are certainly vulnerable to accusations of meddling in places where you don’t belong. As much as anything, you need to develop relationships with key stakeholders in Palestine, the United States, and in Europe, conveying a sense that you are a person of substance with whom leaders will be able to work. Many leaders have grown tired of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s perceived arrogance, and this is something you can take advantage of if you handle things carefully. You will also need to differentiate yourself from Netanyahu in ways other than your personal style and your commitment to a negotiated peace. The fact that you are a Mizrahi Jew (coming from the Arab World) may blunt the historic advantage that Likud has had with the Mizrahi Jews. You are well-known and admired in Israel for your business success, and your political stances tend to be centrist (and even center-right). Part of your challenge is to make a strong appeal to center-right voters who have grown tired of Netanyahu, while not alienating the liberal base of the Labor Party. You have an ease and a personal magnetism that make it appear that you could appeal to Israelis who have not voted for Labor in a long time. Use the simulation to distinguish yourself from Netanyahu, portraying yourself as a bridge-builder and not someone who sows division, and as someone who believes that a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians is the only route to true security for Israel.

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