For Israel's Labor Party Leader, an Arab Is a Problem

It’s now clear that in the eyes of Avi Gabbay 'Arab' and 'extremist' are synonyms

Zouheir Bahloul, a Knesset member from the Zionist Union party, decided not to attend any of the events marking the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration. In response, “associates” of Avi Gabbay, who heads Zionist Union’s main component, the Labor Party, said that Bahloul “won’t be in the next Knesset” and that Gabbay “has had it with extremism.”

But if Gabbay considers someone like Bahloul to be extremist, who would he consider moderate? It’s hard not to conclude that for the Labor Party chairman, “Arab” and “extremist” are synonyms.

“Everyone who knows me and my views knows there’s nothing more important to me than coexistence between Arabs and Jews in this country,” Bahloul wrote in response. “The battle for an egalitarian existence, mutual respect and Israel’s democratic space is my guiding light. This is why I entered politics, and this is what I fight for.”

He’s absolutely right. It’s hard to think of any other Israeli public figure who better symbolizes moderation and Arab-Jewish coexistence than Bahloul. So what was there in what he said to earn him the name of an extremist? It seems his crime begins and ends with the fact that he is an Israeli Arab.

The demand that Israelis Arabs participate in celebrations of the Balfour Declaration – the cornerstone on which the state of Israel was founded – is excessive. After all, as Bahloul aptly said, “this is a declaration that constituted a watershed for the Zionist movement, but at the same time, for the Palestinian community, it constituted the beginning of their struggle for an independent state.”

It’s inconceivable for Gabbay not to understand that Bahloul – like any minority worldwide, including the Jews – has a complex identity. Bahloul is both Palestinian and Israeli. Anyone who supports the two-state solution, as Bahloul does, believes that independence for one people doesn’t contradict independence for the other. Bahloul can support the Palestinian struggle for independence without being a threat to Israel, just as Jewish Israelis can support the Palestinian struggle without betraying their loyalty to the state.

The Netanyahu government is characterized by incitement and inflammatory language, by branding people as traitors and administering loyalty tests. Gabbay, as the person elected to lead a political change in government, is first and foremost obligated to free himself from this conceptual world view.

He recently declared that he wouldn’t sit in a government with the Arab parties’ Joint List. “I don’t see what connects us,” he said. When he was assailed over this and accused of making racist statements just like Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid – who declared, referring to Arab MK Haneen Zoabi, that he wouldn’t partner with “the Zoabis” to block the right from forming a government – there were people who tried to defend him, saying he only had a problem with the extremists in the Joint List.

But it’s now clear that there is no other way to understand Gabbay. His response to Bahloul paints him as a garden-variety nationalist – someone who doesn’t want Arabs in his government, and also not in his party.

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