New Israeli Labor Party Leader: 'I Don't Deal With Palestinians' Rights'

Avi Gabbay reaffirms his support for two-state solution after anti-Arab comments cause storm, but says: 'We should avoid uprooting Jews from their homes'

Labor party leader Avi Gabbay meets with constituents in the southern Israeli city of Dimona on October 15, 2017
Labor party leader Avi Gabbay meets with constituents in the southern Israeli city of Dimona on October 15, 2017 Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Labor party leader Avi Gabbay reaffirmed his support for the two-state solution on Tuesday but said Israel shouldn’t be hasty in evacuating Jewish settlers from the West Bank. Gabbay's remarks came a day after he said there was no need to evacuate settlements in case of a peace deal with the Palestinians.

"We must not look at the evacuation of 80,000 Jews casually," Gabbay said, adding that, "I don't deal with the rights of Palestinians." He said he believes Israel must find creative solutions in a future peace agreement to avoid evacuating settlements.

"I am for a solution based on the two-state solution, a demilitarized Palestinian state, [and Israel retaining] settlement bloc which would include 420,000 [settlers] from the 480,000 [living in the West Bank] under Israeli sovereignty," Gabbay said.

However, he added that "we need to avoid as much as possible uprooting Jews from their homes, much like we need to avoid uprooting Arabs from their homes."

"Like I said during my campaign, I think evacuating Jews by force is a painful process and alongside striving for peace we need to try to do to everything we can to avoid evacuating settlers," he said. He noted that it was unacceptable that settlements outside the accepted blocks would receive more funding that regular Israeli cities.

Labor Party members were surprised by party leader Gabby's statement that settlements needn’t be evacuated under a peace deal with the Palestinians, sparking lively debate in internal party forums. But aside from one bland remark by MK Itzik Shmuli, none of the party’s Jewish lawmakers – including those on its left flank, like Amir Peretz, Shelly Yacimovich and Stav Shaffir – would comment on the record.

"If you make a peace deal, solutions can be found that do not necessitate evacuations," Gabbay in an interview with Israel's Channel 2, after having been asked whether the isolated settlements Eli or Ofra would have to be evacuated. "If a peace deal is made, why do we need to evacuate? I think the dynamic or the terminology that we have become accustomed to, that if you make a peace deal you evacuate, is not actually true."

The party’s one Arab lawmaker, Zouheir Bahloul, said he was “shocked at this statement by the person elected to be the leader of the peace camp.”

Many lawmakers said they had never heard Gabbay say anything like this before. “I’m not one of those who oppose the settlements at any price, and we have to invest in the people who are already there, but saying that even under an agreement [they’ll remain] is going too far,” one, who asked not to be named, said.

Yet even those who disagreed with Gabbay said they didn’t want to challenge him publicly, because the party has suffered so much from years of infighting that they want to give him a chance to make changes.

One person close to Gabbay said the Labor leader “made a deliberate decision to take the risk that his base would flee in order to wink at centrist and soft-right voters.” Gabbay often says in private conversations that “Likudniks like me, I know how to talk to them,” referring to members of the ruling Likud party.

Those remarks came a day after he said he wouldn’t sit in the same government coalition as the predominantly Arab Joint List, a comment that drew criticism from some on the left.