So Likudniks who back Gabbay won't feel they're voting Labor

As he moves to right, Israel’s Labor leader said planning to drop party’s name

After ruling out coalition with major Arab party, hailing settlers, saying he won’t remove settlements for peace, Avi Gabbay set to change historic party moniker, TV report says

Avi Gabbay, seen at a press conference on July 11, 2017, the day after he won the Labor party leadership, with the party logo behind him. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Avi Gabbay, seen at a press conference on July 11, 2017, the day after he won the Labor party leadership, with the party logo behind him. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

In what would be the culmination of a dramatic move to the political right, the new leader of Israel’s Labor Party reportedly intends to change the party’s name in his effort to draw voters away from the governing Likud party and unseat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The center-left Labor Party was founded in 1968 as a merger of other center-left factions that had led Israel for its first two decades, mainly under prime minister David Ben-Gurion. Labor was then helmed over the decades by prime ministers including Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak.

But Avi Gabbay, who won the Labor leadership in elections three months ago, intends to rebrand it, and call it “something like ‘One Israel,'” a report on Israel’s Channel 2 news said Friday, “so that Likudniks who want to vote for Avi Gabbay won’t feel that they’re voting Labor.”

(“One Israel” was the name adopted by Barak for Labor’s alliance with the Meimad and Gesher parties ahead of the 1999 elections — similar to Labor’s current alliance with the Hatnua party under the “Zionist Union” moniker.)

Shimon Peres lights the cigarette of Yitzhak Rabin, September 16, 1986. Photo by Moshe Shai/Flash90)
Shimon Peres lights the cigarette of Yitzhak Rabin, September 16, 1986. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

The name change would culminate a process Gabbay has initiated to drastic effect in recent days aimed at “changing the positions” that the party presents to the public, and “the way it is perceived,” the TV report said. Gabbay is shifting the party to “a more right-wing, traditional stance,” the report noted, in his bid to oust Netanyahu.

Labor and the predecessors from which it was formed led Israel uninterrupted from 1948 to 1977, when the hawkish Likud first won power under Menachem Begin. It has spent most years since then in opposition, and has changed its leader no fewer than eight times in the past 15 years.

Logo of the Israel Labor Party — HaAvoda

Its repeated electoral failures are partly a consequence of Israel’s shift to the political right after Rabin, and then Barak, were unable to reach permanent peace agreements with the late PLO leader Yasser Arafat, and after two Palestinian uprisings and three rounds of conflict with Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Barak was prepared to relinquish the vast proportion of the West Bank to Palestinian control, and was ready to dismantle numerous Jewish settlements there in the cause of an agreement, but his efforts, brokered by the Clinton administration, were unsuccessful.

Newly elected leader of the Labor party, Avi Gabbay, with outgoing chairman Isaac Herzog at a press conference on July 12, 2017. (Miriam Alster/ Flash90)

Gabbay won the Labor leadership this summer, defeating Isaac Herzog, despite having only recently joined the party, and having previously served as environment minister in the centrist Kulanu party under Netanyahu’s premiership. Herzog had lost to Netanyahu in the 2015 general elections.

Gabbay had quit the Netanyahu government in May 2016, accusing it of leading Israel along a path to destruction.

In recent days, Gabbay has set out positions strikingly similar to Netanyahu on the issue of settlements — infuriating some of his own party colleagues.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly cabinet meeting at PM Netanyahu’s office in Jerusalem on May 26, 2015. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/Flash90)

On Thursday, Gabbay called the settlement enterprise “the beautiful and devoted face of Zionism” and also specified Israel must retain control over the Jordan Valley in any peace deal with the Palestinians.

“The settlement [project] was and remains the beautiful and devoted face of Zionism,” he said. “Over the years, regardless of the party in power, the settlement project demonstrated commitment, determination and love of the country. You, the settlers, are the pioneers of our generations, people who act in the face of adversity, who cause the wilderness to bloom, who realize the impossible,” he added.

Environmental Minister Avi Gabbay announces his resignation, May 27, 2016 (FLASH90)

Earlier this week, Gabbay said in a Channel 2 interview that he would not evacuate West Bank settlements as part of a peace deal with the Palestinians.

Last weekend, he said he would not have the Joint (Arab) List — the Knesset’s only major Arab party — as a member of any coalition he heads, and he also recently said he was “unsure” that Israel has a viable partner on the Palestinian side for a peace accord.

His ruling out the evacuation of settlements was condemned by a number of lawmakers from the Zionist Union.

Friday night’s TV report said Gabbay hopes to attract other political players and possibly even merge other parties into his, in his effort to widen its appeal and draw voters away from Netanyahu.

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