Laboring To The Center


Tel Aviv — When Labor Party newcomer Avi Gabbay upset political veterans Amir Peretz and incumbent Isaac Herzog in July, the leadership change gave the ailing party of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin an infusion of life.

Gabbay, a former telecommunications executive, has relatively little experience in the Knesset and lacks the charisma of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But his background — he was born to Moroccan immigrants — sparked hopes among the Labor faithful that he might expand the party’s appeal to Israeli Jews of Middle Eastern origin, traditionally a loyal Likud constituency.

Surveys showed a notable bump for the dovish left-wing party after Gabbay’s surprise victory. Polls suggested that Labor had doubled its support, jumping from about 11 parliamentary seats to 22 in response to the leadership change.

However, in the last week, the new Labor leader has angered political allies and other Israeli doves with remarks on Israeli settlements and the Israeli Arab minority that suggest his political positions are significantly to the right of the party.

If you reach a peace deal, you can find solutions that don’t require evacuations.

In an interview aired Monday on Israel’s Channel 2, Gabbay came out against settlement evacuations as part of a peace deal. Asked what he would do with two settlements located deep in the West Bank, Gabbay responded, “If you conclude a peace treaty, why do you need to evacuate?”

He continued, “I think the dynamic and terminology that we’ve become accustomed to — that if you reach a peace treaty, then you evacuate [settlements] — is not necessarily correct. If you reach a peace deal, you can find solutions that don’t require evacuations.”

On Tuesday morning, Gabbay doubled down on the comments in interviews with Israel Radio, saying that the evacuation of “80,000 Jews” — the estimated number of Israelis in isolated West Bank settlements — shouldn’t be accepted as a “casual” forgone conclusion.

Gabbay’s remark sounded like a distant echo of Netanyahu himself, who has said that he opposes the evacuation of any Israeli settlements in the West Bank in the framework of a peace deal. The prime minister has said that the isolated communities should be allowed to remain as part of a new Palestinian state.

The remarks came two days after Gabbay stirred up angst on the Israeli Left by ruling out the idea of bringing the Arab Israeli “Joint List” parliamentary faction into a Labor-led government, saying “I don’t see anything that connects us.”

The comments reflected an effort by Gabbay to curry favor with Israeli voters in the center and the center-right at the expense of Labor’s traditional dovish base and positions — a tactic that his party predecessors tried several times with little success on Election Day.

Some analysts suggested Gabbay’s remarks reflect anticipation among Israeli politicians that the criminal investigations of Netanyahu might lead to a new parliamentary election sometime in 2018 — ahead of its scheduled date two years from now.

“The winds of the elections are blowing.”

Amid reports that the prime minister will face fresh police interrogations in the graft investigation against him, Netanyahu over the weekend lashed out at Israeli Police Chief Ronny Alsheich and his media adviser for leaks to the press.

“The winds of the elections are blowing,” said Hanan Cristal, an analyst on Israel Radio.

Political commentators wondered if there was something more to Gabbay’s settlement remarks: Would the new Labor leader push to actually change the party’s official ideological platform and its political alliance with parliament member Tzipi Livni, dubbed the Zionist Union, both of which oppose leaving isolated settlements in place following a peace deal?

Livni was quick to say that Gabbay’s settlement remarks did not reflect the position of the Zionist Union. “There’s no doubt that you can’t promise that every Israeli living beyond the security fence will remain in their houses,” she said in an interview with Israel Radio. “That is a situation that won’t allow true separation.”

Political analysts said that Gabbay is aiming to lure supporters of Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid Party and the center-right Kulanu Party of Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon. But the remarks risk alienating part of Labor’s core constituency, said Tal Schneider, the diplomatic reporter for the Israel financial daily Globes.

Gabbay grew up on the political right. His family supported Menachem Begin. In 2003, he voted for Ariel Sharon. He was elected to parliament in the last election as part of Kahlon’s Kulanu faction, whose support came mostly from Likud supporters on the center-right.

Gabbay’s remarks opposing settlement evacuation “are totally against the party’s ideology. [Labor] has always been about giving the Palestinian territorial contiguity,” Schneider said. “Now he is saying things that are totally off the party platform.”

Gabbay’s remarks on settlements came two days after he criticized the Joint List, which received 90 percent support of Israel’s Arab citizens in the 2015 parliamentary election.

When an interviewer suggested that Gabbay will have to rely on the support of the Joint List, a merged Knesset faction of three different Arab parties, to build an alternative majority in parliament to the current right-wing coalition, Gabbay hustled to distance himself from the speculation.

“Unequivocally, we won’t sit in the same government with the Joint List,” he said during a town hall-style question-and-answer session in Beersheva on Saturday. “Period. That should be clear. … I don’t see anything that connects us.”

The remarks triggered criticism from a parliament member from Gabbay’s own party. “Such remarks must not be uttered,” said Zoheir Baloul, an Arab member of Labor in an interview with Israeli radio station 103FM. Baloul added that Gabbay’s comments amounted to an unfair indictment of Israeli Arabs, the country’s 20 percent minority. “The Labor Party has made [Arab-Jewish] partnership its marquee issue. Moving away from us will just create a moral failure.”

An editorial in the left-wing Haaretz newspaper argued that ruling out cooperating with the representative of one-fifth of the country reeked of nationalism, and pointed out that the Labor leader did not rule out joining forces with parties from Israel’s far-right.

“Gabbay spoke the way he did in order to curry favor with the right wing and drum up votes among Arab haters in society,” the editorial said. “The message that he’s conveying to the public is that the Zionist Union under his leadership is a right-wing party in disguise, which shuts Arabs out of the game of politics. Currying favor with the right has been tried exhaustively by Labor over the years, and that is one of the central reasons for its ongoing debacles.”

Shunning the Joint List is not a particularly controversial position for the vast majority of most of the Israeli Jewish electorate, said Dahlia Scheindlin, an Israeli public opinion expert. No Arab party has ever actually joined an Israeli government. Still, Gabbay’s remark was seen as blunt.

“It’s striking that a party desperate to re-establish itself and return to its historical power is giving up on what used to be a meaningful part of its votes,” Scheindlin said.

Gabbay is still an unknown to most Israelis, and hasn’t established a brand in the mind of the public, she said.

“He’s not on the map in people’s consciousness in that people say, ‘Oh, this is what he stands for,’” Scheindlin said. “He feels like he has to place a check mark next to the I-am-not-too-far-of-a-lefty box.”