New Labor Party chair Avi Gabbay made a few surprising statements this week that made it abundantly clear he was abandoning the party’s traditional ideological stand, hoping to lure voters on the political right and gain sufficient support to replace Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Gabbay — a newcomer to the Labor Party who was elected in the July 10 primaries to lead it — surprised most members of his party, with the exception of his ally, Knesset member Shelly Yachimovich. She claimed there was nothing new in Gabbay’s position. Many voters who cast their ballots for the Zionist Camp — a two-faction union of which Labor is the senior member — in the 2015 general elections as an alternative to Netanyahu are also likely to be taken aback by Gabbay’s statements.
Speaking on October 14 at an event in the southern city of Beersheba, Gabbay declared that he would not sit with the Joint List in any future government. “We will not sit with them, unequivocally. I do not see anything that connects us to them,” Gabbay said.
The following day he veered further to the right, addressing a gathering of Labor party members like a die-hard right-winger: “We have to understand a very simple thing: We are the strong ones here. They always scare us, but we are the stronger ones. We are stronger than the Arabs are. We do not have to be afraid of them; the Arabs have to be afraid of us,” Gabbay said. In addition, as if that were not enough, Gabbay added, “Jews in the Land of Israel must rely solely on themselves and ensure that everything is under their control.” He also told the stunned party members that he had met senior defense officials, half of whom do not believe there is any Palestinian partner for peace negotiations.
Before his party members could fully understand the direction in which their new leader was taking them, Gabbay continued to dismantle one by one Labor’s traditional positions. Party supporters who had sworn allegiance to the heritage of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin — assassinated in 1995 for trying to make peace with the Palestinians — heard the new chair tell Channel 2 that there was no need to vacate West Bank settlements as part of a peace agreement with the Palestinians. “If we make a peace agreement, why should we evacuate?” he said. “I think that the dynamics or terminology we have become accustomed to here, where ‘if you make peace you evacuate,’ are not necessarily true.” Gabbay made all of these statements in the span of 72 hours.
In an interview with Al-Monitor website, Joint List Chairman MK Ayman Odeh (Hadash) gave Gabbay an ultimatum. “If he and the Labor Party want us to do our part to replace the regime, he and his top party members must now say clearly that they regard us as a legitimate group. If not, we will stop talking to him,” Odeh said. The Joint List must show Gabbay and the Labor Party that from now on there are no more “free political lunches,” he added.
Odeh claims Gabbay does not understand the math: Without the support of the Joint List — currently the third largest Knesset faction with 13 lawmakers — the Zionist Camp has not a hope of replacing the Netanyahu government. “We Arabs constitute 20% of the population. Anyone wanting to change the political map must understand that without us, it’s impossible,” he said.
Netanyahu, he added, understands this equation far better than Gabbay. Odeh points to the 1999 elections in which Israelis were given two ballots — one for the party of their choice and the other for prime minister — and 94% of Arab voters picked Labor’s Ehud Barak, who defeated Netanyahu for the premiership.
Joint List MK Aida Touma-Sliman (Hadash) added, “Gabbay insists on proving he is not an alternative, but just a bad impression of the Right. The public is not looking for a change in personnel. The demand is for a genuine political, diplomatic and social alternative to the policies of the Right.”