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Leader of Israel’s left slants right amid a changing political map

Avi Gabbay, head of the Zionist Union alliance and the Labor Party, leads a Zionist Union meeting at the Israeli Knesset on Nov. 20, 2017. In the background is a photo of former Israeli prime minister and Labor leader Yitzhak Rabin. Credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Avi Gabbay, head of the Zionist Union alliance and the Labor Party, leads a Zionist Union meeting at the Israeli Knesset on Nov. 20, 2017. In the background is a photo of former Israeli prime minister and Labor leader Yitzhak Rabin. Credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.

Avi Gabbay, a leader of Israel’s political left and presumably one of the top challengers to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a future election, has surprised the Israeli public with what many consider right-wing rhetoric. Yet it remains unclear if Gabbay’s positioning represents a real shift or merely a pre-election bid for wider support.

The right-wing bloc led by Netanyahu and his Likud party has dominated Israeli politics in recent years, and the shifting of Israeli public opinion to more centrist or right-wing political views has seemingly dampened the electoral hopes of the left.

But Gabbay—head of the Labor party and the Zionist Union alliance, which is made up of the Labor, Hatnuah and Green Movement factions—has attempted to depict the Zionist Union as a centrist entity with a pro-religion stance.

“The left has forgotten what it means to be Jewish,” Gabbay said last month.

Labor MK Yehiel “Hilik” Bar, deputy speaker of the Knesset, told JNS that Gabbay “speaks about what he really believes in.” But Bar prefers to describe the ideological change in his party as “moving us back to the center,” rather than to the right. Labor had drifted “to the far left over the past 20 years” since the assassination of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, he added.

Bar said he belongs to a “center-left stream of the party” that believes in fighting terror, but also in supporting a two-state solution. Gabbay “is speaking about having zero tolerance for terror, opposing BDS, but yet seeking peace,” continued the Labor lawmaker.

If the Zionist Union alliance wins the next election, he said he would not rule out a coalition including Israel’s haredi parties, but could not consider joining forces with Education Minister Naftali Bennett’s religious nationalist Jewish Home party. Bar noted that haredi parties and Labor have previously been in governing coalitions together and can find common ground on many social and economic issues.

Amid Gabbay’s shift, Bar said that if the party leader ultimately takes positions that Labor lawmakers believe have “crossed ideological boundaries, we will say something.”

Labor MK Omer Bar-Lev blamed right-wing propaganda for painting Gabbay’s recent statements as a shift to the right, when in reality he was simply continuing longstanding Labor policies.

“The right has tried to portray Labor as far left and willing to appease the Palestinians,” Bar-Lev told JNS, arguing that Israel’s Zionist left supports strong security policies.

In October, Gabbay sparked controversy in his party by saying that settlements in Judea and Samaria (commonly known as the West Bank) do not need to be dismantled. He later clarified that his statement came within the context of his support for an Israeli separation from the Palestinians and a two-state solution.

All Gabbay has done, according to Bar-Lev, is repeat the oft-stated policy that Israel would keep some major settlement blocs while withdrawing from others in a potential peace deal.

“There won’t be peace tomorrow morning, but I think that Gabbay’s statement was not needed,” Bar-Lev said.

Regarding Gabbay’s remark that the left “has forgotten what it means to be Jewish,” Bar-Lev said the party leader was misunderstood because Jewish values from Labor’s vantage point are the basis for modern liberalism, including taking one day off from work each week, helping refugees and so on.

Asked if there is now a crowded center in Israeli politics due to Gabbay’s shift, with Labor moving closer to the centrist Yesh Atid and Kulanu parties, Bar-Lev said Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid “is scared to take a strong stance on an issue and economically he is right-wing like Netanyahu, while we are social democrats.”

For Labor, one possible result of a shift to the center is losing votes from its left-wing base to the far-left party Meretz, an electoral dynamic that has played out in the past. Commenting on Meretz, Bar-Lev said that faction “only support negotiations” between the Israelis and Palestinians, while Likud “doesn’t do anything” for the peace process and Labor implements “the Zionist vision of two states” by supporting “policies and laws that promote separation from the Palestinians.”

Likud MK Sharren Haskel is skeptical about Labor’s perceived shift.

“I don’t think the Israeli public will fall for this public relations stunt by Avi Gabbay, as most people see that he is only winking towards the right to get more votes,” Haskel told JNS.

If Labor would gain power, she doubted the party would try to pass any right-wing legislation that matches Gabbay’s recent rhetoric.

“Just for the sake of argument, let’s imagine Gabbay is for real,” Haskel said. “Would his fellow Labor MKs such as Merav Michaeli, Zoheir Bahlul or Stav Shaffir support any such right-wing laws?”

Regarding Lapid, the Likud lawmaker asserted that he has used the same tactic as Gabbay, “presenting himself as more right-wing than he is in order to gain votes.”

Kulanu MK Meirav Ben-Ari told JNS that “the Labor party is leftist—that’s how it was and that is how it will remain.” She argued that while Gabbay tries to be attractive to the right-wing public, most of his party’s MKs are left-wing.

Asked what distinguishes Kulanu from Labor, Ben-Ari responded, “Kulanu is a socio-economic party with clear objectives of dealing with the cost of living, the housing crisis and narrowing the gaps.”

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