Israel’s Left Goes Right

Avi Gabbay, leader of the Israeli Labor party, next to a painting of the former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, in Jerusalem last month. Credit Abir Sultan/European Pressphoto Agency
Avi Gabbay, leader of the Israeli Labor party, next to a painting of the former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, in Jerusalem last month. Credit Abir Sultan/European Pressphoto Agency

When President Trump announced that the United States would formally recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, he upended a central tenet of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process: Under the first Oslo Accord in 1993, the status of Jerusalem was to be resolved through direct negotiations, and not through unilateral declarations by Washington or other third parties. For over two decades, Labor, Israel’s main center-left party, has been committed to a two-state solution that would honor the Oslo agreement.

Times have evidently changed for the party. Its new leader, Avi Gabbay, who scored a stunning victory in Labor’s leadership election in July, celebrated Mr. Trump’s Jerusalem announcement, saying, “a united Jerusalem is even more important than peace.” Though other Labor leaders have also called for a united Jerusalem, the tone of Mr. Gabbay’s remarks, as an Israeli news website noted, “contrasted with that of the dovish Labor, which has long been the Israeli political standard-bearer for reaching a peace agreement with the Palestinians.”

While most Israelis already consider Jerusalem their capital, some prominent leftist politicians, including the Meretz Party chairwoman Zehava Galon and the Joint List leader Ayman Odeh, warned that Mr. Trump’s announcement would cause instability. With Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dogged by two serious corruption investigations, including allegations of graft, this should be an ideal time for the country’s beleaguered center-left opposition to mount a serious, united challenge to Mr. Netanyahu and his right-wing government.

Instead, the opposition is in disarray, encumbered by both internal strife and a national trend that threatens to sideline anyone perceived as remotely leftist. Now, after years of demonization by the Likud and its political allies, including spurious accusations of disloyalty, the Israeli left’s foremost political party has internalized the message. Mr. Gabbay, the best hope for a movement capable of challenging Mr. Netanyahu, has become a sad replica of Mr. Netanyahu himself.

Since assuming the leadership of Labor, he has been making hasty appeals to Mr. Netanyahu’s base. In October, in response to a question about the fate of isolated settlements in the occupied West Bank, Mr. Gabbay said, “If you make a peace deal, solutions can be found that do not necessitate evacuations,” and later said that the settlements were “the beautiful and devoted face of Zionism.” While Mr. Gabbay has since tempered his remarks on settlements and insists that he fully supports a two-state solution, his position on crucial issues seems irrefutably at odds with it.

Labor’s recent moves reflect the desperate situation Israel’s left has faced since the collapse of the Camp David peace talks in 2000. Labor’s shift is happening while other parties on the left are also struggling to stay relevant. Ms. Galon of Meretz, for instance, recently resigned from the Knesset to focus on her campaign to replace her party’s arcane system of electing its leader with a proper democratic primary.

The Joint List, an amalgamation of Arab and Communist parties, stays bound as a coalition out of necessity; if any of the Joint List’s constituent parties ran on its own, it would struggle to enter the Knesset in the next election. And even if it did, Mr. Gabbay has pledged to exclude its members from a future coalition government under his leadership.

Mr. Gabbay may have taken a particularly sharp shift to the right, but he isn’t the first Labor leader to do so. In 2016, Isaac Herzog persuaded the party to support a unilateral separation plan that would have further isolated Palestinian cities and neighborhoods. Invoking a need for “separation” from the Palestinians has become the fallback for opponents of the Netanyahu government who wish to avoid the label of “leftist,” which Likud and its allies have rendered politically toxic.

Unilateral separation as a banner policy is not a novel strategy to make peace but rather a capitulation to the right-wing narrative on the peace process. Mr. Gabbay may see this as an opportunity to upstage Mr. Netanyahu in his possible moment of weakness. But when asked in a recent poll who they believe is more suited to serve as prime minister, 39 percent of respondents chose Mr. Netanyahu, and only 19 percent felt that Mr. Gabbay was the better candidate. Clearly, Mr. Gabbay’s tactics are not working.

Worse still, by equivocating on the settlement issue, Mr. Gabbay is undermining Israel’s democratic ideals. A recent bill in the Knesset sought to extend the Jerusalem municipality to include four West Bank settlements as far as 10 kilometers from the current boundary. The Greater Jerusalem bill, as it is known, would also remove approximately 100,000 Palestinian residents of the city from the census. This bill is a half-step toward outright annexation, but with Mr. Gabbay veering ever more to the right, Labor isn’t positioning itself to oppose it effectively.

Instead, the Labor Party would do well to take the initiative and offer a different narrative to Israelis. It should return to its previous positions on the peace process and present the hard truths about the settlements, clearly highlighting their ties to lost public investment opportunities. Economic problems facing Israeli voters, including the cost of housing and groceries, drove thousands of demonstrators into the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in 2011. One of the organizers of those demonstrations, Stav Shaffir, went on to become one of Labor’s strongest and most vocal Knesset members.

By not offering a consistent position on the settlements and the two-state solution, Labor is setting itself up to lose once more to Mr. Netanyahu, and the left’s political standing will sink into further disarray. A recent headline for an essay on Israel’s popular Ynet website summed up the conundrum for Israeli voters well: “If this is the left’s leader, why not just vote for the right?”

Abe Silberstein is an independent political commentator. Nathan Hersh is a writer and the former managing director of the social justice nonprofit, Partners for Progressive Israel.

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