Principles and Personalities

By Dow Marmur

Jerusalem (Oct. 17, 2017) – Israel’s Labour Party seems to be shedding its political Socialist roots. Its newly elected leader Avi Gabbay is a refugee from the right-wing Kulanu Party, founded and headed by Moshe Kahlon, who used to be a member of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud.

At least three recent news items indicate that Gabbay seems to have remained politically close to his former party boss.

  1. He announced the other day that, should he form the next government, he won’t include representatives of the United List that currently has 13 members of the Knesset. All but one are Arabs representing Arab political parties. Though no previous government, whether led by a leader of Labour or some other political party, has ever included representatives of the Arab parties, Gabbay’s announcement seeks to “reassure” his would-be Jewish voters that it won’t happen next time either.
  2. No doubt, for similar reasons, Gabbay also told us that he doesn’t see the continued existence of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank as an obstacle to peace with the Palestinians. Again, though previous Labour governments have not only tolerated but promoted Jewish settlements in the West Bank, Gabbay’s announcement smells of a pre-election promise to encourage people on the political right who, for one reason or another — perhaps due to pending corruption charges — won’t vote for Netanyahu next time, to vote for Gabbay.
  3. Rumour has it that Gabbay has been courting former chief of staff Moshe Yaalon to join him. Yaalon is firmly placed on the political right and, indeed, was Netanyahu’s defense minister until he was dropped from the government, perhaps to reward the leader of the Yisrael Beiteinu Party Avigdor Lieberman, who replaced him as defense minister. Yaalon has made it clear since his dismissal that he’ll oppose Netanyahu in ways he’ll deem to be most effective.

The next general elections in Israel won’t be about ideology or principles, but about personalities

Though some members of the coalition of Arab parties that form the United List may be on the left, the only identifiably left-wing Jewish party in Israel is Meretz. But Meretz is small and doesn’t seem to appeal to the masses, not even to those who might be described as proletarians. Its constituency is among middle class traditional Socialists and there aren’t many of us around nowadays. Should Gabbay form the next government, he may include Meretz for reasons of convenience, not conviction.

All this suggests that the next general elections in Israel won’t be about ideology or principles, but about personalities. For the party that would become Labour’s major partner, should either leader be charged with the task of forming the next government, is Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, which, to the extent that it’s imbued with any ideology, is on the political right. It occupies the same centre that Gabbay is seeking for his party. Gabbay would need Lapid to form a government.

All this suggests that Israel is roughly in the same place as other countries. Prime Minister Netanyahu has already recognized it by trying to establish good relations with his European rightist counterparts as well as, of course, with President Trump who, to the extent that he has principles and an ideology, would be placed on the right, probably on the reactionary right.

Though it’s tempting to criticize Gabbay’s efforts as politically cynical, it may turn out to be a realistic attempt to break the Netanyahu hegemony and, at the same time — dare we hope? — restore the economic Social Democracy that is in Labour’s tradition and in Israel’s best interest.

Rabbi Dow Marmur is Rabbi Emeritus of Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto. He lives in Jerusalem.

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