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Explained: Why many on the Left are furious at new Labor leader Avi Gabbay

From vowing never to join forces with Arab political parties to saying there’s no reason to remove settlements, Labor’s new leader has alienated many on the Left in recent months. His latest move, supporting the deportation of asylum seekers, is different.

Head of the Zionist Union party Avi Gabbay with Opposition Leader Isaac Herzog. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Head of the Zionist Union party Avi Gabbay with Opposition Leader Isaac Herzog. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Last July, Avi Gabbay was elected chairman of the Labor party on the promise to return the party to power. Since then, Gabbay has staked out positions considerably to the right of Labor’s traditional base, leaving many on the Left frustrated, even devastated. Labor gained ground in the 2015 elections because it cast itself as the anti-Netanyahu; now, Labor voters worry, Gabbay is turning into Netanyahu.

Gabbay was always an unconventional choice for Labor. A former head of the Israeli telecom giant Bezeq, Gabbay was among the founding members of Moshe Kakhlon’s center-right Kulanu party, and even served as minister in the current government, resigning in May of 2016 to protest the appointment of Avigdor Liberman as defense minister. While Gabbay’s rivals in Labor raised questions about his right-wing past, the party ultimately decided to give him a chance.

Religion and state? Okay

The first sign of trouble came shortly after Gabbay’s election, in August, when he appeared at an event about religion and state alongside Education Minister Naftali Bennett in the West Bank settlement of Efrat. Bennett, at the time, was facing criticism from secular Israelis who were angered by his changes to the Israeli public school curriculum, which they felt amounted to religious indoctrination. While Gabbay did criticize Bennett’s changes to the curriculum, he made a concerted effort to appeal to the religious right. “I have no problem if my son learns Talmud,” Gabbay said.

‘We have nothing in common with them’

In early October, at a speaking event in Beer Sheva, Gabbay announced that he would refuse to form a governing coalition that included the Joint List, the political heterogeneous union of Arab parties and the third largest party in the Knesset. “We have nothing in common with them,” he said. Gabbay’s stance on the Arab parties was in practice not significantly different from that of his predecessor, Isaac Herzog, but the absolute rejection of partnering with Arab parties ruffled feathers even within his own party.

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Threatening to kick out Labor’s only Arab MK

Two weeks later, when Labor MK Zuheir Bahlul announced he would not attend the Knesset’s celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, Gabby reportedly threatened that Bahlul “won’t sit in the next Knesset session,” adding that he was tired of “this kind of extremism.” Gabbay’s public threats against his party’s only Arab MK disturbed many in Labor and on the left. “From his response to Bahlul,” the Haaretz editorial board wrote, “[Gabbay] has proven himself to be a nationalist like all the others—someone who does not want Arabs in the governing coalition, or in his party.”

Settlements are here to stay

Gabbay further frustrated members of his own party when he declared that no settlements would need to be evacuated in a future peace agreement. Tzipi Livni was quick to release a statement that Gabbay’s views did represent hers or those of the Zionist Union, the merger of the Labor party and Livni’s Hatnua. Despite the controversy, Gabbay’s comments, again, reflected more of a shift in style than in substance. Herzog, during his time as Labor chairman, also did not exactly take a pro-peace position, claiming that now was not the time to attempt a two-solution.

Gabbay’s strong statement in favor of keeping the settlements in place did not sit well with others on the left either. Meretz MK Ilan Gilon remarked at the time that Gabbay seemed “to have forgotten that he was chosen to lead the alternative to the Likud.”

Adopting Netanyahu’s disdain for the Left

If pandering to the religious right, threatening an Arab member of his party, and cozying up to the settler lobby wasn’t enough, Gabbay appeared to cross another line when in early November he echoed a famous Netanyahu comment that “the Left has forgotten what it means to be Jewish” — that the Labor party had chosen liberal values at the expense of Jewish values. Adopting a line associated with the beginning of Netanyahu’s tenure generated a firestorm.

The last, or latest, straw

Gabbay’s defenders have insisted that the rightward swing is all part of a strategy to return Labor to power—though it is a strategy that has been tried and failed before.

Yet Gabbay’s new direction for the party became more than just a change in rhetoric this week, when he ordered the party to support a bill that will allow the deportation and indefinite detention of asylum seekers living in Israel. Support for the bill does more than shift Labor’s location on the political map, it could have real consequences: the deportation of tens of thousands of people who have lived in Israel for years, putting many of their lives at risk.

Nine of the Zionist Union’s 23 MKs opposed Gabbay’s decision. Sheli Yachimovitch, the former Labor chairwoman, said it “was morally impossible to support the bill.” Zuheir Bahlul remarked, “I cannot understand how the party can support an immoral, right-wing proposal to send the refugees to hell.”

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    1. JitKunDo

      The Labor party elected a new leader knowing full well that he joined Labor from the center-right. He got elected on a platform of trying something new. That something new isn’t a change in rhetoric which is transparent to everyone as long as the party insists on going about with business as usual. That approach has certainly been proven a failure. The one thing Labor party hasn’t tried to do is to actually change its positions and appeal to the Israeli center. This is what it is trying now. It might fail, but the alternative is permanently languishing in the opposition. There isn’t much one can change from the opposition.

      1) If Labor wants to reach out outside of its wealthy secular bubble it has to appeal to Israelis that currently vote for Lapid, Kachlon, Shas and the Likud. Many of those Israelis are traditional in their religious outlook and the rhetoric of some Labor MKs (ahem, Merav Michaeli) strikes them as deeply disrespectful to their religion and lifestyle.

      2) There is zero chance of the Joint Arab List joining the next government. The party includes Palestinian nationalists and Islamists. There is nothing in common between people that want to eliminate Israel and wish it harm and those that wish to see it thrive. The Joint Arab List couldn’t even bring itself to sign a vote sharing agreement with Meretz in the last election. I have no idea what kind of a moron one has to be to believe it can sit in an Israeli government.

      3) The reality is that most settlements will stay in place in any future agreement. Meretz can get angry by someone that makes this clear, but then again, who cares?

      4) Many members of the “Left” have indeed chosen secular humanism as a guiding ideology with some shallow mentions of Jewish values, Zionism, etc. I don’t see a reason why stating so should be controversial given that this website insists that this is what the “Left” should be in the first place.

      5) The deportation of illegal migrants is the right thing to do. It is good that Gabbay and the Labor party have chosen what is good for the Israeli population as opposed to working towards the good of illegal migrants that came here to work. They will be deported to Rwanda. I think Rwandans would be offended by having their country called hell. Seems a bit racist.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        Dahlia Scheindlin already explained in these pages why pandering to “the center” (the right in European and North American countries) or the right has not and will not work (see: “Pandering to the Right is a losing strategy for Labor,” Nov 16). Edo Konrad has dissected this issue insightfully (see his several recent pieces here).

        Anshell Pfeffer explains why deporting the refugees is the wrong thing to do, morally and in terms of economic cost effectiveness, and why it has to do with not just pure-play racism but a combination of the racism of the Israeli population and Israel’s being stuck in immigration policies it is unable to change, because it has “more difficult questions of citizenship, demographics and identity, arising from Israel’s military control of the Palestinians, that have to be solved first.” See:

        Deporting Africans Isn’t Moral or Even Cost-effective. So Why Is Israel Doing It?
        read more: https://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.824648

        Reply to Comment
        • JitKunDo

          Dahlia is wrong. Israel isn’t a two party system where you can motivate your base and win an election. Winning requires being able to form a coalition. That requires a push towards the center where most voters are and which should be relatively easy given that the Likud is going further right. Her suggestions ensure that the center/left won’t be able to win. Now one can say that winning isn’t important, but then one is just an idealogue that prefers moral purity over influencing events. As for the idea that appealing to the center/center-right “can’t work” for a center/left party. That is just cretinous. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair both did that and won. What doesn’t work is when you do it in an inauthentic way which is what Labor has done under previous leaders. Gabbay seems authentic and has the political background to prove it. He is actually a center/center-right politician. It can work. It doesn’t have to work, but it can. The alternative is the government we have now. Presumably if one doesn’t like the current government one would want to take action to change it as opposed to sitting in the opposition stewing in your own moral purity and righteous anger.

          Anshell Pfeifer is wrong too. To start with the overwhelming majority of the migrants are not refugees. They are illegal migrants that came here to work. For the most part they are low-skill, low-educated labor from poor and underdeveloped countries. While Israel needs such labor it doesn’t need the problem of trying to absorb them as immigrants that have zero chance of successful integration. It has no need of a ghetto or of a generation growing up in Israel that feels no affinity for the country and can only grow up disaffected and angry. It doesn’t need the future problems of these people trying to bring over their parents, spouses, children, siblings and the inevitable and insurmountable problem of trying to integrate them. The cost of deporting them is trivial compared to the future political problems that will arise from giving them a path to citizenship. They can be replaced by bringing in temporary foreign workers legally or by granting work permits to more Palestinians. Either way this doesn’t create future political/social problems which Anshel and people like him either ignore or relish. And by far the dumbest idea that Anshel has is giving them a “one-time amnesty”. That has been tried elsewhere and it only encourages future waves of migration because if you solve your “problem” this way now then odds are good that you will do it again going forward.

          Deportation is the correct solution and there is no moral or legal problem with deporting these people to other countries where they face no danger to their lives. The only thing Israel can’t do is return them to their own countries as long as they face danger were they to return.

          Israel does need to change its immigration policy. It needs to allow and encourage high-skill immigrants to come and settle here. Whether they are Jewish or not isn’t particularly relevant. The larger question is whether they can be economically and socially integrated in a way that increases the well-being of Israeli citizens without causing significant social problems later. For example Israel needs engineers, programmers, doctors, nurses and other professionals. It should set up a point system, like in Canada and Australia, and welcome those that qualify.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            I think you ignore a lot of what both these authors are saying and use phrases like “zero chance” reflecting extreme prejudice and refusal, for deeper reasons, to make anything work. (Your whole approach to a peace agreement carries the same kind of absolute, rejectionist negativism.) But just two cases in point:

            “As for the idea that appealing to the center/center-right “can’t work” for a center/left party. That is just cretinous. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair both did that and won. What doesn’t work is when you do it in an inauthentic way….”

            The “center” in Israeli politics is way too far right on the Palestinian issue for an Israeli Bill Clinton or Tony Blair to carry the day. Apples and oranges.

            “there is no moral or legal problem with deporting these people to other countries…”

            No? So what is so special about Israel that it is always “other countries” who can and must do this? The ultimate Nimbyism. The ultimate elitism. Tell me how this is not Israel’s peculiar narcissism? And if all you’re going to say is the standard “Israel is a small country, we can’t afford it” it won’t wash. Israel is a relatively well-off country and these are not large numbers of people, and Israel absorbed vast numbers of white pork-eating Russians who are not even much Jewish if at all and you accommodated them just fine. To the more objective observer, Israel tends to boast of its ingenuity and resourcefulness when the project is self-serving and attractive but displays a peculiar, sudden ineptitude when the project is less appealing and self-serving. Whether that project is peace making or human rights respecting or settler-restraining or refugee absorbing.

            Reply to Comment
          • JitKunDo

            I use terms like “zero chance” when there is zero chance of something happening. There is zero chance that a Palestinian nationalist party can sit together in an *Israeli* government with parties that wish for the well-being of the State of Israel.

            Israeli politics has a left, a center, and a right. These are relative terms. The American center is the European right and so on you pedant. An Israeli Bill Clinton or Tony Blair would have to move to the Israeli center on the Palestinian issue as well in order to win. The alternative is to cede power to the right permanently. I fail to understand how otherwise pragmatic people are up in arms over a party that prefers winning to moral purity. Politics is about trying to change things which is easiest done by achieving power. While the left is busy fighting its wars of ideological purity the right understands this concept intuitively.

            No country must accept immigrants. No country must accept migrants who are not refugees. None must provide a path to citizenship to refugees. The only obligation is to not deport people to places where they might be persecuted and/or provide temporary asylum. Some countries choose to treat migrants and refugees as immigrants. That is their choice and it places no obligations on other countries.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            The Israeli “center” on the Palestinian issue is a “what occupation?–there is no occupation” refusal and denial, refusal of a practical two state solution in favor of a status quo position of denial and paralysis and endless “managing the conflict,” at the expense of human decency while incubating a festering one state non-solution. The Israeli “center” is the epitome of avoidance and impracticality. So I don’t need lectures on getting things done you pedant. The Israeli “center” is the champion of not getting things done and not changing things. This is why ultimately no one who knows what is really going on thinks Israel can effectively change by itself and solve its problems by some internal political process. Steadily increasing outside pressure will be needed to save Israel from itself, stage an intervention.

            Not everything that is problematic with the right wing in Israel can be laid at the door of racism but your sense of your specialness–that you get to pretend to be just like Europeans and Americans when it serves your purpose but not play by the rules and be simply tribally racist when it serves your purpose, and with typical Israeli arrogance say “Nu? Next question?” — this unembarrassableness, this contradiction at the heart of today’s right wing Israel is born out in your comments now and elsewhere about refugees.

            Reply to Comment
          • JitKunDo

            The Israeli center on the Palestinian issue is that although peace is desirable and partition is possible the Palestinians are more interested in eliminating Israel than having their own country. A Labor leader will have to authentically appeal to that center if he/she wants to be seen as credible. You seem to be more obsessed with your desire to have Israel be isolated and sanctioned than with discussing Israeli politics.

            I have no idea what rules you are talking about or why there would be a separate set of rules for Europeans and Americans and another one for everyone else. Sounds kind of racist.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            “the Palestinians are more interested in eliminating Israel than having their own country.”

            An inversion of the truth. The Israeli state has designed and implemented remorseless policies bent on eliminating the Palestinians. But you are correct that the Israeli “center” nurtures this truth inversion.

            “a separate set of rules for Europeans and Americans and another one for everyone else.”

            A distortion of the truth. Replace “everyone else” with “Israelis.” As in:

            The world’s blatant double standard – in Israel’s favor

            Reply to Comment
      • Bruce Gould

        @JitKunDo: That’s one analysis of the current Israeli government. Let me present another, from David Shulman’s article in the Dec 7 issue of the New York Review of Books. From page 49:

        “…it just happens that this miraculous state…is maintaining one of the last true colonial regimes in the world: that its public spaces are poisoned by an atavistic racism, its leaders driven by a mean-hearted, self righteous tribalism; that its minister of justice, or injustice, Ayelet Shaked, has recently announced that the paltry excuse of elementary human rights will never be allowed to get in the way of the nation’s maximalist goals…that its army has spent the last several decades as a police force in territories that belong to another people, its main task being to ensure that the land grab can go on undisturbed.”

        Reply to Comment
    2. Ben

      An illuminating contribution above from ‘Bobby Homer English’ regarding the sources of Jabotinsky’s Zionism in Italian Romantic movements and individuals antecedent to Mussolini. It illuminates something important about the awkwardly anachronistic nature of 21st Century Zionism in its current right wing Israeli form, which is as if it emerges out of a kind of strange time warp or funnel from the European past.

      Reply to Comment