In the most recent Labor Party leadership primaries I supported the candidacy of Avi Gabbay in both rounds. Though to a large extent Gabbay was to me and other party members who voted for him something of an enigma, his appeal manifested itself in several spheres.
There was the fact that he had, for professional reasons, decided to vote in the government (he was environment minister on behalf of Kulanu) against the Natural Gas Outline (he was the only minister to do so); the fact that he decided to resign from the government on principle when Moshe Ya’alon was replaced by Avigdor Liberman as defense minister; his self-confidence that does not translate into Netanyahu-style smugness and cockiness; his apparent unflappability; his determination to do everything in his power to change the political balance in Israel – away from the extreme Right; and last but not least the respectable, non-whining, non-aggressive way he conveys his personal experience as a successful Israeli of Moroccan origin, of Ashkenazi haughtiness and racism.
The first time I felt uncomfortable with Gabbay’s reaction to what seemed to him like a controversial issue was when he stated unequivocally that he had never voted for Likud. When caught out on this issue by another candidate for the Labor Party leadership, he answered that indeed he had voted for Ariel Sharon before the latter broke away from the Likud and formed Kadima, which was not convincing since as a member of a family with staunch Likud leanings (according to Gabbay himself), he had certainly voted for the Likud more than once since1988 – the first election in which he was of voting age – before joining Moshe Kahlon in the formation of Kulanu.
In the past two weeks, several statements made by Gabbay on political and security issues increased my discomfiture. These included statements to the effect that the Joint (Arab) List is not a potential partner in a coalition since “I see nothing that connects between us,” “there is no reason to evacuate settlements in a peace agreement” and “what matters is what we do for ourselves – I am not concerned with Palestinian rights.”
After checking and rechecking what Gabbay had actually said (rather than what he was reported to have said), I reached the conclusion that while he might not have a problem with his English, despite what some have suggested (though there is always room for improvement), he has a problem with his Hebrew, when he speaks of highly sensitive issues that are not within the spheres of his expertise, which are primarily business and administration. In other words, he is insufficiently articulate when speaking on political and security issues.
This isn’t something that cannot be rectified, if Gabbay were willing to devote a little time and thought to articulating his basic positions on such issues, not merely with the thought of attracting moderate Shasniks and Likudniks to support him as chairman of the Labor Party, but also to accurately express the core positions of the party he was elected to lead.
However, Gabbay’s strategic goal, as I understand it, is to reformulate the positions of the Labor Party to ones that are slightly more hawkish and Jewish in the religious sense than they have been in recent decades, even if this means losing some supporters to Meretz. He feels that this is the only way to construct a “blocking bloc” (including a stronger Meretz) that will prevent the hard Right-religious bloc from continuing to hold an automatic majority. The problem is that if he loses more dovish, left-wing Jewish votes and Arab votes than he can gain moderate right-wing-religious votes, the Labor Party/Zionist Union might weaken, and prevent his being the obvious candidate to replace Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
But to return to Gabbay’s problematic utterances of the past two weeks. On the issue of removing settlements, he should have said (but did not say) that for him, and his party, the removal of settlements is not an ideological goal, but a painful act that might have to be agreed to if the conditions ripen for a viable agreement with the Palestinians regarding the two-state solution he professes to support, should the Palestinians refuse to enable Jewish settlements to continue to exist within their sovereign state.
If indeed Gabbay believes that the only solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the two-state solution – as a real aspiration rather than a tactical ploy to placate the international community (as it has been for Netanyahu) – then he must know that “peace agreement” and “no removal of settlements” are a non sequitur.
On the issue of the Joint List and not being concerned with Palestinian rights, once again Gabbay should have been more articulate. Unlike the parties Gabbay was associated with before he joined the Labor Party, since the 1970s the latter has had an Arab constituency, has included Arabs among its Knesset members, and appointed the first full-fledged Arab minister (MK Rhaleb Majadla, who was appointed science, culture and sports minister in Ehud Olmert’s government).
Thus, while Gabbay is absolutely right that the Joint List with its current make-up is not eligible to join an Israeli government, his statement on the issue should have included a corollary to the effect that on principle there is no problem with Israeli Arabs being members in an Israeli government, as long as they do not support Palestinian acts of terrorism against Israel.
Gabbay should also have avoided disclaiming any concern with Palestinian rights, since the Labor Party has long realized that Israel’s long-term interests as Jewish and democratic state living in security cannot be realized if Palestinian rights – whether we are speaking of Israeli Arabs who view themselves as Palestinians, or Palestinians who are not Israeli – are not taken into consideration.
The bottom line is that while Gabbay’s efforts to gain support in sections of the population that have traditionally been alienated from the Labor Party is to be welcomed, and that the price of losing certain sections among the party’s traditional supporters to Meretz might be worth paying, he must show greater respect for the party’s traditional positions.
It certainly would do Gabbay no harm if he devoted a little more time listening to his party’s elders, even though he may differ with them on certain issues. He would also be well advised to listen to the leader of Hatnua Tzipi Livni – a former member of the Likud and an offspring of “the fighting family,” who knows a thing or two about negotiations with the Palestinians.