On May 27 last year, in a short press conference in Tel Aviv, Avi Gabai, then environmental protection minister, announced his resignation.
This wasn’t over something under his ministry’s jurisdiction, but because of a clear political issue: the replacing of Moshe (Bogie) Ya’alon, who was defense minister at the time, with Avigdor Liberman, who was considered to be aggressively right-wing, and far less qualified for the job.
Talking with The Jerusalem Post Magazine in Tel Aviv a couple of days before he officially announced his candidacy as head of the Labor Party, Gabai calmly explained that his decision was an “accumulation of many things,” with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s treatment of Ya’alon being the one he wasn’t willing to take anymore.
“This was an extreme watershed moment for the way the prime minister handles things,” Gabai explains. “To what degree does he manage the system for the good of the people and to what degree does he run it for his own political survival?” Asked if he thinks there is a strained relationship between Israel’s political leadership and the IDF command, he says: “I definitely see that in the past prime ministers have backed the military system and today they don’t…
“We haven’t heard the prime minister condemn the expressions against the chief of staff in the Azaria [Hebron shooting incident] Affair… On the subject of the deputy of chief of staff [Maj.-Gen. Yair Golan, who gave a controversial speech warning that Israel should beware of ‘fascist social processes’], we saw that Netanyahu only inflamed the fire, instead of trying to calm it.
“I thought that staying in a government that is busy with dividing people is a very bad thing. I was hoping that there would be a unity government, that the Labor Party would join… The government is the government of everyone. It’s not only your constituency’s government… You can’t incite one sector of society against the other. You are responsible for everyone.”
On his website Gabai writes about the “continuous activity by the prime minister to split and divide the people, using endless incitement.” This incitement, he explains, is “against the Left, the media, Israeli Arabs.”
He says he hoped that this behavior would change after the elections. “You know how it is: There’s campaign behavior and then there’s after-campaign behavior. I hoped it would change, but it didn’t. It was Netanyahu’s success in the elections that led him to proceed with this.”
The most acute problem in Israel today, Gabai says, is lack of management. “The system isn’t managed. Netanyahu is very talented politically,” he adds, “I only wish he would use his talent to manage the state.”
EVEN THOUGH his resignation may be seen as his first step as an independent politician, Gabai denies that it was a political move. “I would have been very happy to continue tackling air pollution,” he says.
He has gained a reputation as the sole minister who openly objected to the controversial gas plan in Netanyahu’s government – so much so that a month before his resignation, journalist Guy Rolnick, from the financial magazine The Marker, called him “a subversive element in the Israeli government.”
As environmental protection minister, Gabai says he targeted air pollution as the first and foremost subject his ministry would focus on. Pollution, he explains, is the result of transportation, electricity and industries.
The solution, he says, is natural gas, being an alternative energy source.
“The price of gas in Israel is so high that the electricity company prefers to use coal. It’s the same with the industrial sector. That is why I fought over the gas deal because I thought that if we really want to solve the pollution problem we have to provide gas at a reasonable price and not with the exploiting prices charged by the State of Israel today.
“It’s very simple,” he says. “The government took care of the owners of the gas fields instead of taking care of its citizens.”
In a recent influential interview, Gabai talked about the gas plan and the decision-making process, describing what many thought sounded like a corrupt system.
“In the end, the story is that you have a public system where people [professionals] aren’t saying what they have to say and instead start saying the opposite of what they actually think,” he explains. “Inside the room they say one thing and outside they say something else.”
He explains this happens due to political pressure, and not because of any direct monetary benefits: “I don’t think these people took any money from anyone. I don’t think that the professionals who work on the gas plan receive anything. I am not accusing anyone of this.”
However, there is one person he does point the finger at: “It all starts with the head,” he says, referring to Netanyahu.
“It is the pressure exerted by the prime minister that causes people to break [and not stick to their own opinions in the end].”
According to Gabai, the state can’t hope to gain from the present deal the significant profit it could have earned, as the costs of maintenance are too high.
But why would Israel hurry toward such a bad deal? “That’s a good question,” he says. “I don’t have an answer to that.”
The political system, he tells the Magazine, is worse than he thought.
“It is more self-centered than I imagined.” And although he says he was disappointed by the same system he is now trying to return to, he insists that this is the only position from which one can make a difference.
A fast climber
He is a father of three boys (ages nine, 15 and 17). His wife made aliya from Australia and is a high-school teacher. They live in Tel Aviv.
He was born in 1967, the seventh of eight children. Unlike most of his siblings, who were born in Casablanca, Morocco, he was born in Jerusalem. He grew up in a ma’bara (immigrant transit camp), that turned into Jerusalem’s Talpiot neighborhood, where his family – that mixed three languages; Hebrew, Moroccan and Hebrew – lived in two huts: one 60 sq.m. for the eight children and parents, and another 30 sq.m. for the grandmother.
He served in the army as an intelligence officer and moved from there to become a student in economics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he also completed his master’s degree in business administration.
At the age of 27, he started working in the Finance Ministry, and after four and a half years he moved to the Bezeq communications company, which was at the time a government company.
When he was 40 he was appointed Bezeq’s CEO, and enjoyed a favorable reputation.
That’s where he also came to know Moshe Kahlon, who was the communications minister during part of his time as Bezeq’s CEO, a term that saw Kahlon’s populist political rise, after his successful reform of the country’s cellular market, which allowed more competition and lower prices.
“We talked all the time, but it was only during Operation Protective Edge  that we really started working [on establishing a party together].”
Gabai said Kahlon has “good political instincts,” and that he foresaw that the elections would be in April 2015. “They were in March.”
At the age of 46, following the March 2015 elections, he became the youngest in Netanyahu’s government, and one of the three Kulanu ministers, even though he had accumulated no previous political experience. Shortly after his resignation he commented that “it was not Kahlon that he was leaving, but Netanyahu’s government.” However, when asked about the relationship between them now, he replies that they “hardly ever talk,” insisting however, that it is a “good relationship.”
A change of approach
Today, he is one of eight candidates who have announced they will run for the head of the very weakened Labor Party. Asked about his decision to go with Labor in particular, he says that “Labor is still the only one that can replace Netanyahu,” and that “he identifies with the Labor’s values,” although he explicitly doesn’t define himself as a man of the Left.
“I don’t see myself as a man of the Left, nor do I see myself as a man of the political Right, or a man of the Center.
“I defy these definitions, because these are definitions created by Netanyahu – this measure of Left and Right – which is not a real measuring tool. Because I, for instance, am a very, let’s call it – very aggressive man on the issue of security. I think that on this subject we need to be as forceful as possible. But at the same time, we have to look for a political solution with the Palestinians. So what is this? Right? Left? Center?”
Many people have tried to uncover the great mystery of how to make devoted Likud voters change their votes. Gabai too believes this is the key for Labor to win back its influence in the country. During the last elections this was a business that many engaged in. Perhaps the most famous of these attempts was the V15 organization, that tried convincing people not to vote for Netanyahu. Gabai’s own family used to vote Likud before he entered politics.
“I think that the Labor Party needs to change its attitude in order to bring new voters… There’s an emotional block that needs to be bypassed.”
“PART OF the matter,” he says about the problem the party is facing with its dwindling constituency, “is to turn to a new public, to talk in a different language, to make the party more accessible.”
This, he says, is also related to what he calls “Jewish identity.”
“Jewish identity is to say that we are here because we are Jews. This means respecting Jewish symbols. I have a kiddush every Friday because I am Jewish. It is part of our tradition.” He says that there is a “huge gap” between the way Jews in Morocco grasped religion and the way they grasp it today in Israel.
“Religion today is a technical thing. It comes from a place that is less intimate.
You wouldn’t be able to ask a person in Morocco whether or not he’s religious; he wouldn’t know what that meant. For him there was no such thing as religious and secular.
“I think we should understand the basic principles of our living here – that this is our land, we are Jews, that’s why we are here. We are not here because we are Israelis. We want to live in a Jewish democratic state.
“I believe that Zionism today is to make sure that we will have an excellent state here, that will know how to be home to world Jewry, that Jews will say they want to live in Israel because it is an excellent country with the right values, with the right economy, with a reasonable cost of living… We should not only aim at the ones who want to come to Israel because of Zionism, but also because it is worthwhile to come and live here.”
When asked about the Labor values he identifies with, he focuses on four issues: security, the two-state solution, keeping the large settlement blocs in any future deal with the Palestinians, and what he calls “unified Jerusalem.”
This sounds a lot like the 2009 landmark Bar-Ilan speech, in which Netanyahu emphasized the importance of a two-state solution.
“Right,” he readily agrees. “I am all for the Bar-Ilan speech. I think it is an excellent speech. The only problem is realizing it.”
But is there a partner for this? “I think you need to nurture a partner and to aspire to move in that direction. First, you need to create trust.
In the beginning you deal with smaller things. You begin by solving a problem they have with some checkpoint or other, and then they solve a problem concerning a book that incites against us, or a problematic television channel… And slowly you solve things.
And then, step by step, you get to the bigger issues. Nobody’s doing this [now] – but this is the way.
“What is happening today, I think, is that the Likud MKs don’t represent their constituency anymore. They represent the interests of the voters of Tkuma [the more extreme faction in Bayit Yehudi]. They represent [MK] Bezalel Smotrich. That’s why there’s a gap between members of the Knesset and Likud voters, and it is to this gap I think we should approach and try to recruit people, because I think that most Israelis believe in the Bar-Ilan speech…
“By the way, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef said that you don’t have to live in all of the land of Israel,” he says with a triumphant smile, “and Rabbi Ovadia Yosef is no less religious than Smotrich, so this isn’t really a religious question par excellence. These are worldviews.
They are trying to tell you that, if you are a real religious person you have to live in Elon Moreh, and if you live in Tel Aviv you are not religious. No!” he exclaims. “That’s not how things are.”
STATING ABOUT oneself that one is not a “regular politician” is becoming a very common declaration nowadays for any aspiring politician. In Israel, this trend saw an unprecedented peak following the 2011 protests, that focused on the high costs of living in Israel. It was then that politicians like Stav Shaffir and Itzik Shmuli (Labor), and Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) started their political journey.
And it is a consequence of that period that politicians such as today’s Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon have based some parts of their power. But of course the most staggering peak for this trend was recently presented not here, but in the US, with the election of President Donald Trump. That’s where this phenomenon of preferring the “outsider” was perhaps most successful.
True to this fresh tradition, Gabai too describes himself in his site as a “politician of a different kind, and in fact, not a politician, but a leader for whom the journey and the values are most important, and not respect and ties.”
Does he really believe that one can be an honest politician when he is in the highest-ranking positions? “Of course,” he replies. “You saw my resignation.”
But this is hardly a proven success.
“Yes, but in that year [as environmental protection minister] I was an honest politician and managed to advance political plans that needed the cooperation of other ministers. By the way, the ‘Plastic Bag Law’ (which requires supermarkets to charge 10 agorot per plastic bag) was something that many hadn’t succeeded in passing and I managed to do it.”
The most pressing matter now, he concludes, is “to give back the state to its citizens.”
“Today,” he explains, “it is hostage to the politicians. Anything that happens, happens because it’s good for the politicians, not because it’s good for the citizens.”
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