What can Israel’s Labour leader offer Palestinians?
The occupation and comatose peace process were not a central part of Gabbay’s campaign.
Avi Gabbay was elected leader of Israel’s Labour Party, seeing off the trade union-backed Amir Peretz in a run-off. Outgoing leader Isaac Herzog went out in the first round.
Gabbay’s win marked an extraordinary political journey for the former CEO of telecommunications company Bezeq, who had only joined Labour six months earlier. Indeed, it was barely a year ago that Gabbay — then part of Kulanu — resigned his ministerial position in Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s government.
The combination of Gabbay’s outsider image — as well as being a newcomer to Labour, he is a Mizrahi — his relative young age (50, 17 years younger than Netanyahu) and business background, prompted some to compare him to French President Emmanuel Macron. Others say that Gabbay will revive the fortunes of the Labour Party, which has not won an election since 1999.
Such hopes were boosted when the Labour-dominated Zionist Camp opposition bloc showed an immediate rise in polls following Gabbay’s leadership election on July 10. Yet the high end of Zionist Camp’s predicted haul — 20-24 seats — would only match its showing in the 2015 election.
Gabbay faces an uphill battle to become Israel’s prime minister. Labour/Zionist Camp may gain at the expense of Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid but most of the Israeli electorate’s recent movement has been within, rather than across, right-wing and centrist blocs. Netanyahu remains well ahead of his rivals with respect to whom Israelis see as most suited to be prime minister.
What does this mean for the Palestinians? The occupation and comatose peace process were not a central part of Gabbay’s campaign but there are clues. He has backed transferring areas of occupied East Jerusalem annexed by Israel to Palestinian Authority control. “These are isolated areas and villages that can be returned without hurting security,” he said.
At the same time, Gabbay insisted: “Jerusalem will remain united in any scenario. There can be no negotiations over that.”
In a post-victory interview, Gabbay described Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as “definitely a partner.” However, in May he told the Jerusalem Post that, while Israel must initiate negotiations with the Palestinians unilaterally, he doubted whether it would be possible to achieve a final status deal with Abbas. “I don’t want the world to see us as the side that is refusing to reach an agreement,” he said.
Gabbay has said he would cut off funding for more isolated settlements in the West Bank while asserting that the “Jordan Valley must be part of the country’s eastern security belt in any deal.” On his website, Gabbay wrote that the conflict with the Palestinians “is solvable” but would need “courageous and determined leadership,” a comment, which is, of course, rather vague.
While his resignation last year, in protest at the removal of Moshe Ya’alon as defence minister and the entry into the coalition of Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu, seems to suggest a man of principle, it has been noted that Gabbay did not publicly object, ahead of the 2015 elections, to the surplus-vote agreement made between his Kulanu party and Yisrael Beitenu.
When he resigned in May 2016, Gabbay said Israel “has the right to have a right-wing government but I do not think it is right to form an extremist government.” Furthermore, as i24 News pointed out, “during Netanyahu’s coalition, he had no problem being part of a coalition expanding settlements and opposing the peace process.”
Overall, Gabbay’s position on the Palestinian question seems more or less consistent with the platform endorsed by the Labour Party last year, which effectively booted the two-state solution into the long grass and endorsed Herzog’s proposal for unilateral “separation.”
A Palestine Liberation Organisation official reportedly declared Gabby “an honest man of peace.” This says more about the Ramallah leadership’s desperation than it does about the new Labour leader’s likely impact, given the Palestinians’ current choice of the status quo, annexation or Bantustan-style separation.
Gabbay may have excited Labour voters but for Palestinians experiencing Israeli occupation and apartheid first-hand, it all seems wearingly familiar.