Editorial

Israel's Opposition Leader Is More Like a Likudnik

The political opposition desperately needs a leader who refuses to talk in ultra-nationalist Netanyahu-speak

Labor party leader Avi Gabbay at a Zionist Union coalition meeting, 13 November, 2017.
Labor party leader Avi Gabbay at a Zionist Union coalition meeting, 13 November, 2017. Emil Salman

Labor Party chief Avi Gabbay is a man of the right. His election as Labor Party leader raises a question: Did he forget he was on the right when he ran for the party’s leadership, or did party members who voted for him forget they were on the left? Either way, the opposition to the right-wing government is in trouble.

At a conference at Ben-Gurion University on Monday, Gabbay criticized the left, referring to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “In 1997, Bibi said that ‘the left has forgotten what it means to be Jewish.’ Do you know what the left did in response? It forgot how to be Jewish.”

Netanyahu’s ugly saying in 1997 has long reflected the incitement that’s the hallmark of his rule. Along with his warning cry on Election Day about Israeli Arabs “going to the polls in droves,” he’s espousing an ultranationalist Jewish worldview, an ethnocentric and exclusionary one that turns its back on the modern Zionism that strove to convert Jews from an ethno-religious group into a modern people in its own country.

The Israel of Benjamin Netanyahu continues to sacrifice civic and liberal principles – the mainstay of the Zionist movement – on the altar of Jewish ultranationalism. This is done for the sake of preserving Jews’ privileged rights regardless of demographics or borders, while trampling on democracy.

The left never forgot what it is to be Jewish – it’s the right that’s undermining the project called Israel. Gabbay’s statements seem to indicate that he hasn’t grasped the problems with Netanyahu's incitement against the left.

Gabbay proudly presents his Jewish values (“People feel that I am closer to Jewish values. We are Jews. We live in a Jewish state”) like an illegal migrant requested to show his documents to the immigration authorities. He does this instead of standing tall as a proud Israeli, sending to hell anyone who appoints himself chief of the identity police. Gabbay’s Jewish values – regardless of the eternal and fascinating argument about what these actually mean – aren’t in question, so they can’t be the answer.

The political opposition desperately needs a leader who refuses to talk in Netanyahu-speak, a leader who reformulates an old-new language that’s worthy of a sovereign people, free in its own land. A people whose country has recognized borders, sure of its Israeli identity.

The opposition doesn’t need a language of an ethnic or a religious community cowering out of fear of assimilating or withering away. If Gabbay doesn’t soon remember that he’s the chairman of the Labor Party, not Likud, he won’t even be worthy of being a deputy to Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, let alone becoming the country’s leader.

The above article is Haaretz's lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel