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Avi Gabbay Is #Winning: Israel’s New Political Dynamo Plays For Keeps

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Avi Gabbay wants you to know that he is a different kind of Labor Party leader. The newly-elected head of Israel’s oldest and arguably most troubled political party sat down with me for a typically chaotic interview in his Tel Aviv office yesterday, where aides came and went and the conversation was interrupted by a quick radio interview on the latest political crisis of the moment.

No matter. The message he presented was clear. It’s all about winning a general election, something the Labor Party hasn’t done in 18 years.

“When I have to decide between ideas and winning elections, I’m choosing to win elections,” he said. “It’s nice to argue about the last issue you had but in the end, you have to win. If you don’t win elections in Israel, you’re nothing.”

I met Gabbay — a self-made millionaire from humble roots, who doesn’t quite look like the marathon runner he used to be — at the start of a long day of reporting, and honestly, I haven’t had the chance yet to digest all of what he said. But I want to tell you some of the highlights because I’m preternaturally disposed to share what’s in my notebook when I talk to interesting public officials.

And he’s interesting. Just as self-confident but less polished than his rivals, he’s a political novice trying to position himself as both a practical politician and an anti-establishment one, heir to founding father David Ben-Gurion’s legacy (whose visage is everywhere in the small office) and yet willing to depart from Labor orthodoxy. He’s tacking to the center on some issues, hoping to pick up voters from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud and the new centrist parties, confident that his working class, Mizrahi background will be an asset.

His views on religion, for example, are telling. On the one hand, he supports the compromise agreement that was to create an egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel until Netanyahu summarily cancelled it earlier this year, leaving Reform and Conservative Jews furious; Gabbay also favors allowing public transportation on Shabbat. All classic liberal positions.

But he criticizes the secular roots of the Labor Party for alienating religious voters, and believes the party needs a new language to, in his words, “speak Jewish.”

“I try to project more positive views for many Israelis who see religion and tradition as important to their lives,” he told me. “I believe in God, things that this party tried not to mention.”

The latest polls still show Labor struggling, though there is a shift toward center-left parties, partly out of sheer despair of Netanyahu, who many voters believe has been in office way too long. Gabbay seems to draw from many of the political movements sweeping other countries, which is what makes him interesting. Whether he can turn that into a force to actually win elections — well, I won’t hazard a guess — at least until I finish sifting through my notebook.

What else I’ve seen in Israel. An absolutely captivating exhibit by the Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei is at the Israel Museum until March of next year, so see it if you can. Entitled “Maybe, Maybe Not,” the exhibit covers decades of his unique creative output, from delicate porcelain carvings to huge installations. All his work has a distinctly political message, using Chinese symbols and ancient techniques to skewer the government and its suppression of free speech and expression. You can’t take anything for granted when viewing his work, which seems like an apt lesson for today.

Ai Weiwei pictured in front a 2010 work in his Jerusalem retrospective in June. Image by Getty

What I’ve been writing. October was bracketed by two horrific attacks on American soil: The massacre in Las Vegas and the terror attack in Manhattan on Halloween. President Trump’s reaction to each belied his prejudice and his unwillingness to really keep America safe. I explain why here.

This week marks a year since Donald Trump’s stunning election as president, a political cataclysm that we are only now coming to understand. A year later, how do we be Jewish in Trump’s America? In this column I built on the insights of great Jewish thinkers to arrive at my own conclusions. Do you agree?

What I’ve been reading. The Council on Foreign Relations, of which I am a member, last week released a stunning study showing that when women participate in conflict resolution and prevention, it improves the outcome before, during and after the conflict. Read the data — it is utterly conclusive. An interesting note: Since 1990, women have comprised only 8 percent of the negotiators in conflicts around the world, and only two women have served as chief negotiators. One was Tzipi Livni of Israel.

And for a certain kind of amusement, check out David von Drehle’s Washington Post column in which he compares Ivanka Trump to other Queens of Manhattan. They, however, didn’t have a father as President.

Correction. In last week’s Jane Looking Forward, I mistakenly said that Netanyahu was the prime minister in 1994. In fact, he was head of the Likud party, and did not become prime minister until 1996. Thanks to several alert readers for correcting me. Please do write me at [email protected] with your questions and comments.

Looking forward. I’m in Israel through the week, so more to come.

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