Last month, I co-authored an opinion piece in the New York Times critical of the Labor Party’s chairman, Avi Gabbay. As is well known to most Israel watchers, Gabbay sat in the Netanyahu government for about a year before resigning in the wake of Moshe Ya’alon’s dismissal as defense minister and Avigdor Lieberman’s appointment to that office, a result of Yisrael Beteinu’s entrance into the coalition after a period in which the country was led to believe a unity government with Labor was at hand. After leaving Kulanu, the party he helped launch with Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, Gabbay joined Labor and shocked virtually everyone by reaching the final round of its internal leadership elections and subsequently defeating Amir Peretz, a former Labor leader who was the strong favorite to win.

Following his victory and a handful of encouraging polls, Gabbay began moving Labor to the right­­. First, in response to a question about far-flung settlements outside the major blocs, Gabbay suggested they would not have to be evacuated at all in the event of a final status agreement ­–– an assertion that could charitably be chalked up to wishful thinking, but one which also placed Gabbay in near-alignment with Benjamin Netanyahu’s position, or at least the one he’s maintained since September 2016: that not one settlement has to be uprooted. All that was missing was the prime minister’s hyperbolic assertion that settlement evacuation was an abominable act analogous to ethnic cleansing.

If one is tempted to dismiss this as a stretch, which would have been fair in the immediate aftermath of Gabbay’s statements on the settlements, consider his November declaration that Netanyahu had, in fact, been correct to tell Rabbi Yitzhak Kaduri in 1999 that “the left forgot what it means to be Jews.” A week later, Gabbay, with razor-thin support from the Zionist Union parliamentary group (Labor and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah Party), reversed the party’s previous opposition to the government’s plans to deport African asylum seekers.

At that juncture, Gabbay had gone much further than previous Labor Party leaders in trying to expand the map. He was not merely appealing to soft-right voters, a long-time chimera for the Labor Party, but actually pandering to the Likud rank-and-file. The polls reflected the results of this desperation: Yesh Atid, a party with genuine centrist bona fides, moved ahead of Labor, which in turn began losing votes to Meretz.

Now, it seems, Gabbay is ready to reverse course. This past weekend, in Ha’aretz, Yossi Verter reported a net loss of members for the Labor Party since the leadership election, a remarkable if embarrassing feat for a new leader who entered the arena to such incandescent excitement, which has compelled Gabbay to rethink his strategy.

According to Verter, Gabbay now acknowledges recapitulating Netanyahu’s remark about the left and Jewishness was “a major mistake.” Additionally, he has not, to my knowledge, repeated the unrealistic assertion about isolated settlements.

Still, Gabbay and his defenders, a group which includes even some indisputably progressive Labor MKs, such as Stav Shaffir, contend that a move to the center is the optimal strategy for the party. In these pages, Eli Kowaz contends that, “Making sure the center-left bloc has more seats than the right is essential for Labor to win the next elections,” which invariably means “Labor must convince voters in the center-right to switch over to the center-left bloc.”

This is broadly true. In 2009, Tzipi Livni led the Kadima Party to a first-place finish advocating the type of two-state platform that I would prefer the opposition champion today. However, they were unable to form a coalition, as the right’s bloc simply won more seats. The two-state solution, based on the pre-1967 borders with proportionate land swaps, will not win an Israeli election in the near future. Even the pragmatic Commanders for Israel’s Security plan, backed by respected leaders of the Israeli defense establishment, would probably fail to provoke a revolution at the polls.

My objection is not to a centrist opposition, but to Labor representing (or rather, given the polls, attempting to represent) a centrist opposition. Even if Gabbay had not made such overtly obsequious overtures to the Likud base, the party would’ve probably still experienced a precipitous drop in the polls. As Dr. Dahlia Scheindlin, an analyst and pollster who worked on Labor’s 2015 campaign wrote, “Far from a display of cunning strategic innovation, the move has been tried many times and failed just as many.” Indeed, one would have to go all the way back to 1999 to find an election campaign in which Labor didn’t actively try to present itself as non-leftist.

The reason, as Scheindlin notes, is a combination of a lack of willingness from right-wing voters to support Labor and the negative reaction of Labor’s party faithful; it turns out, despite the numerous obituaries, that Labor still has a base that doesn’t recoil upon hearing the word ‘leftist’. And while it’s true Gabbay may have more appeal than previous leaders in Mizrahi communities in which Labor has struggled, Kulanu’s middling overall performance in the last election does not inspire confidence.

A Labor Party true to the values of its supporters, perhaps even merged with a Meretz led by a fresh leader like Avi Buskila or Tamar Zandberg, can exist within a broadly centrist opposition. Yair Lapid, the chairman of Yesh Atid, will have enough trouble forming a coalition because of his past and present opposition to ultra-Orthodox political interests. If Labor succeeded at snatching two or three seats’ worth of centrist voters, it would simply amount to another obstacle for Lapid, who needs a commanding first-place finish to successfully circumvent the right bloc’s preexisting parliamentary advantage.

Instead, Labor should faithfully represent the very real and nontrivial constituency of progressive Israelis, a group which finds itself unfairly marginalized as genuinely outlandish and suicidal annexation proposals gain currency in the governing party. A center-left Labor Party is not only important in achieving the short-term goal of replacing Netanyahu, but also in shifting the conversation in Israel. The cause of two states for two peoples should not be relegated to Peace Now, Meretz, and the opinion page of Ha’aretz. Surely the first step to resurrecting an important idea from the political periphery is for its mainstream advocates to stop treating it as peripheral.

 

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