Avi Gabbay’s rise to the forefront of Israeli politics has been remarkably rapid, comparable only, perhaps, to the speed with which he has switched political camps.
A former Bezeq CEO, he was one of the co-founders of ex-Likud minister Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party before the 2015 elections, and was appointed minister of environmental protection when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu formed his coalition. So far, so smooth.
But a year later, Gabbay was gone, saying he could no longer bear to serve in an extremist government that was leading Israel along a path to destruction, wrecking ties to the US, and silencing dissent on everything from the best use of Israel’s offshore natural gas discoveries to the conduct of the army.
And barely a year after that, in July 2017, he was back again — elected to lead Israel’s main opposition Labor party, of which he’d been a member for all of four months.
The seventh of eight kids of a family of Moroccan immigrants, Jerusalemite Gabbay, 50, evidently learned long ago that quiet self-effacement is not the path to prominence. The man does not dilly-dally.
It’s a trait, it must be said to his credit, that also applies to his interviews. Speaking to politicians is often an exercise in which the interviewer attempts to extract a few drops of clear and coherent content from a sea of self-serving waffle. Questions are ducked and dodged. Answers are proffered that have nothing to do with the question. And by the time the word-flood has ceased, it’s sometimes hard to even remember what the question was.
Not so with Gabbay, interviewed Monday in a small office next to the Zionist Union’s meeting room in the Knesset. (The Zionist Union that he now heads is the alliance of Labor and Tzipi Livni’s party, Hatnua.) When he wasn’t prepared to go into specifics, Gabbay simply said so, briskly, and moved on. The interview was pretty brief, less than half an hour. The ground was covered. No messing about.
He set out his approach to the Palestinian conflict, including a commitment to halt all building outside the settlement blocs, and to seek a “creative solution” for those who already live outside those blocs. He demanded equal treatment for non-Orthodox Jews. He castigated what he said was Netanyahu’s deliberate US policy of reliance solely on the Republican Party. He vowed to tackle what he called a “culture of corruption” stemming from the very top.
Gabbay was not curt or brusque. He just gave direct answers. He was at his most reflective when asked about the process that led him to quit the Netanyahu government, describing the gradual realization, deepening week after week at the cabinet table, that he was in the wrong place.
So here then, translated from the Hebrew, lightly edited for clarity, are the succinct policy positions of Avi Gabbay, the would-be Rabin-esque next prime minister of Israel, who is seeking to improbably replicate nationwide what he improbably achieved in Labor: A rapid takeover borne on the popular will of the voters.
The Times of Israel: Is Yitzhak Rabin your role model when it comes to where the Labor Party ought to stand? Do you feel that the perception of Labor has changed since Rabin, and are you seeking to return it to a more centrist position?
Avi Gabbay: I feel very close to Yitzhak Rabin, although I didn’t know him. Let’s first acknowledge: He’s seven levels above me.
In terms of the diplomatic-security positions, I take a similar stance. And I think there’s a similarity in terms of being practical, getting down to what matters. Not dreaming dreams that sound nice but are impractical. I think I have a similar decision-making capability. I know how to make decisions.
Also, I think neither of us are really politicians. Rabin wasn’t really a politician. Not like Shimon Peres. I mean in terms of the internal politics. The internal political game. Rabin didn’t love that.
You seem to have played it pretty effectively?
Fair enough. But I won over the Labor Party members. I didn’t win via the activists. I lost all the way with the party activists. If it were up to the activists, I wouldn’t have won (the party leadership). So those are some lines of similarity between Rabin and me. Of course he came from the world of defense and I come from the world of economics. Two different worlds.
You need someone with those kinds of security credentials alongside you.
Of course. We need a credible security figure. Absolutely. Just as he needed a credible economic figure alongside him. He had Beiga (finance minister Avraham Shochat) in his day.
I want to ask you some very specific political, diplomatic questions, in part to understand where you differ from the incumbent prime minister. First, is Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas a partner? Could be a partner? Was a partner, but isn’t anymore?
I negotiate with whoever the other side choose. I don’t decide who is the leader of that other people. I will sit and negotiate with whoever is the chairman of the Palestinian Authority, Abbas or somebody else. And try to reach agreements.
Yes, I favor a two-state solution. And I’ll tell you what I want to get: I want to get peace. I want to get normalization with the Arab states. I want to get security. I want to get an ‘end to the conflict’
A pre-condition for you is that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state?
My approach: I don’t run the negotiations via the media. I see myself as a future prime minister. A future prime minister knows that when he sits down to negotiate, they’ll say to him, You told the Times of Israel in an interview that you’re prepared to give 1, 2 and 3. I don’t want to be in that situation, so I won’t get into (those kinds of specifics).
I will say, Yes, I favor a two-state solution. I believe that is the solution. And I’ll tell you what I want to get: I want to get peace. I want to get normalization with the Arab states. I want to get security. I want to get an “end to the conflict,” which I consider to be very important. On the rest, we’ll sit and talk.
You did say something very specific about Jerusalem, which is that a united Jerusalem is more important than peace. What do you mean by Jerusalem?
That statement, too, I’m not prepared to define. I can tell you, for example, that Kafr Aqab — which today is defined as Jerusalem, but it’s outside the wall — that’s not Jerusalem to me.
Shuafat refugee camp?
Yes, I don’t think that’s Jerusalem.
You’ve also praised the settlers (as the beautiful face of Zionism). Netanyahu wants settlers and settlements to stay put even in a Palestinian state. Does that seem viable to you and something you would seek: to leave settlements inside a Palestinian state?
As soon as I am elected, I will halt all building outside the settlement blocs. Speaking generally, the settlement blocs will ultimately be under our sovereignty and therefore I don’t need to enlarge the problem outside the blocs. Okay? I’m opposed to expanding the (settler presence outside the blocs). Another caravan on another hill doesn’t give us anything.
On the other hand, I don’t think we want today to evacuate 100,000 Jews who live there (in settlements outside the blocs). I don’t think that’s right. If we’re entering an era of peace, then we have to find creative solutions together: how to create peace without us suffering (that kind of evacuation). Evacuating 100,000 people would be a terrible blow to the Jewish people.
I think when you seek to make peace, when I go in to negotiate, when I go to cut a deal with someone, I try to make it easy for him and easy for me. Not to make it hard for him so that he makes it hard for me. So that’s the kind of thing that has to be discussed.
You were critical of the prime minister’s handling of the latest escalation in rocket fire from Gaza. You thought Israel should be tougher on Hamas? How would you handle things differently?
The prime minister is so cynical
I thought it was unacceptable that the prime minister of Israel, when they’re firing rockets at his citizens, didn’t say a word. That cannot be. You are the prime minister of the State of Israel. They’re shooting at your citizens. Say that you’re doing everything to ensure the fire stops. Say to Hamas, You better watch out, or else. Say how much empathy you have for the citizens who are forced to stay at home, to stay in the sealed areas.
So your criticism is merely about things that were not said?
It’s a dereliction of duty. You can’t be absent when your citizens are under fire. I know why he acts like that. He knows that the rocket fire at the communities near Gaza represents a failure. If he doesn’t say anything, then that failure doesn’t attach to him. The failure is attached to somebody else. It’s cynical. Cynical. The prime minister is so cynical. A prime minister is supposed to be a leader. He can’t be that cynical. And here his cynicism was on full display.
Furthermore, when the prime minister doesn’t say anything, he’s basically telling Hamas, Guys, this isn’t really that much of an issue for me. The prime minister must speak and say to Hamas, This has to stop, or else! To send that message to the other side. So I think that the behavior of the prime minister and the defense minister in the last flareup is very disturbing behavior, political behavior.
But you’re only talking about what wasn’t said. This isn’t about practical policy?
What is said is part of policy.
It’s not that you’re demanding a different military response?
I’m not getting into the tactics of what specific military response was required.
Is peace with the Palestinians achievable at the moment? Is there any chance of substantive progress in the foreseeable future? Or is it plain impossible?
I’ve asked many people that question. I’ve asked our security people. I’ve asked Palestinians, Arabs, the Americans, Tony Blair (the former British prime minister and Middle East Quartet envoy). I’ve asked them, what do you think? Is there someone on the other side who is capable of making decisions? Because I really want to know. There’s a very big dispute.
There’s a dispute even among those who are not ideologically motivated?
Yes. I’m talking about people who were involved in the process.
I think we always have to try. I don’t think we can say to ourselves, Okay, keep living like this, (there’ll be) a bi-national state, everything’s okay.
We need to talk. We need to create trust. When you look at the process now, we’re not creating trust between the two sides. My criticism is not only directed at ourselves. Netanyahu and Abbas are playing the blame game. They’ve been doing it for 10 years. Now that blame game leads nowhere. Look what’s happened after 10 years. Nothing. When they come to write the history of this period, what will they write? There’ll be one sentence: They played the blame game. I think we need to try.
The Palestinian response to Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital hasn’t exactly been encouraging, however. Or do you feel that they were completely justified because Trump was, in their view, pre-judging a central final status issue?
You watch politicians’ responses (to events). They’re pretty Pavlovian. You know in advance what they’re going to say. (In this case) I think they made a tactical error as well. Their stance should have been, Okay, we took a hit. Now give us 1, 2 and 3. Instead of which, they walked away in a huff. After all, what did Trump actually say? He didn’t say which Jerusalem (he was recognizing as Israel’s capital).
In fact, he explicitly stated that he wasn’t determining the boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem.
Yes. They could have said, It’s not the end of the world, but give us 1, 2 and 3. Kissinger once said, There’s no such thing as foreign policy, only domestic policy. So, their response was for domestic policy reasons. It’s not foreign policy. It’s to show their public.
For Israel it’s a great policy success. This president recognized Jerusalem as our capital. He came to Israel earlier in his presidency than any previous president. He went to the Western Wall. But he’s a very controversial president and Israel under Netanyahu is extremely attached to his presidency. Does the extent to which Netanyahu has hitched Israel’s wagon to the Trump administration worry you?
I was in the United States last week. I met a lot of Jewish leaders. I think that the fact that Israel is relying on only one party is very dangerous.
And that’s what you see: an over-reliance on only one party?
The Democrats will be back in power at some stage. And what will we say to them then?
Absolutely. That’s their policy. I spoke to people who say flat out that this is the policy of Netanyahu and (Israel’s ambassador to the US Ron) Dermer. They rely on the evangelicals, and on one party. That’s the policy. And you see it. You see it playing out. It’s a very dangerous policy for the future of the State of Israel.
The fact that both the parties supported Israel was a huge strategic asset, in my opinion, and in the opinion of experts. And we’re starting to throw that asset away now. We are losing that asset. It is not for us to interfere in who runs the United States. Experience shows that every eight years or so the party (of government) changes. In other words, the Democrats will be back in power at some stage. And what will we say to them then? Where will we be then? This is not what we should be doing.
So what exactly should we be doing differently?
It requires a different approach. What’s happening now is the result of a deliberate policy. That policy needs to change. This isn’t coincidental. It’s a function of a worldview. It’s a worldview that relies on the evangelicals and not on the Jews.
How would you rebuild support for Israel among the Democrats?
When I am prime minister, I will prioritize that fact — that we will work with the Democrats too and not rely on only one party.
Netanyahu would not acknowledge that he’s only working with one party. He would stress that he’s pleased to work with both.
And I’m telling you that when you speak to people in the United States, they quote Dermer saying that this is the policy.
The declared policy?
You quit this government because you said it was leading Israel on a path of extremism, and that the appointment of Avigdor Liberman as defense minister was the last straw for you. Why did that push you over the edge?
It was a process. It began with the agreement on how to handle the gas discoveries. When you see that a decision is being adopted that does not meet the interests of the public, that was a very serious economic issue. It’s not a small issue. You watch the process. You see how all the checks and balances are trampled. You see that all opposition is trampled.
And it continues in that you come to the weekly cabinet meetings and you see that all the prime minister does is spread hatred and division among the public. Every week it’s a speech against the Arabs, against the left, against the media. Against, against, against, against, against. You’re sitting there and you really don’t feel that you are part of this. You feel that it does not reflect your opinion. So, you know, it starts getting harder and harder.
There was the story of (Elor) Azaria, (the soldier ultimately convicted of manslaughter and jailed in the killing of a disarmed and injured Palestinian stabber in Hebron). I supported (former defense minister) Ya’alon and the approach that said one must rely on the chief of staff (to handle the matter).
You realize that you don’t speak the language of the government you’re a member of
There was the problem with the deputy chief of staff (Yair Golan, who warned last year of societal trends in Israel that echoed pre-World War II Europe). There too, I supported Ya’alon, who backed the deputy chief of staff.
So you realize that you don’t speak the language of the government you’re a member of. And the appointment of Yvette Liberman as defense minister — a man who the prime minister had said shouldn’t even be a military commentator; a man who the prime minister said shouldn’t be allowed to sit for five minutes in a security cabinet meeting — that’s a red line. The way I see it, the defense minister is not just another minister. It’s a critical position for the State of Israel. It must be filled with someone who is fit for the post.
A specific question about Arab MKs. You said you wouldn’t include the Joint (Arab) List in a coalition you head. You’re rejecting all Arab parties or that particular constellation?
I said the Joint List.
I favor Israeli Arabs being a part of Israeli politics. I favor working for equality, that we should live together. The overwhelming majority of Israeli Arabs are loyal to the State of Israel. Ultimately they want to live here. They want to live here in peace and tranquility, to receive equal opportunities, to have the state look out for them and deal with their problems. In sum, very positive.
I wish there were an Arab party that worried about its constituents’ interests
The Joint List doesn’t deal with any of that. It deals with opposing the State of Israel. There are elements that are increasingly hostile. Within that list (which includes four Arab political groupings), there is the internal political game. Balad is very extreme and now (Joint List leader MK) Ayman Odeh and others say very extreme things.
They don’t want to sit with us. It’s not only one way.
So it’s specifically them, not Arab parties in general?
Quite the contrary. I wish there were an Arab party that worried about its constituents’ interests.
Since we’re clarifying, please explain what you meant when you said that the left wing has forgotten what it is to be Jewish, which I know you say was misrepresented.
Everyone who was at that event and heard what I said — and there were 300 people there, mostly people from the left — understood exactly. It’s not that I’m explaining in retrospect. What I was saying was that when Netanyahu claimed (that the left had forgotten what it is to be Jewish), we should have dealt with it and not conceded the point. We put our liberal values at the forefront, instead of our Jewish values. That was my point. We didn’t deal with that claim. The left is certainly Jewish. But the left didn’t deal with that claim. It should’ve dealt with it.
I will implement the Western Wall compromise
What’s your stance on non-Orthodox Judaism? What status should it have in Israel? What’s your stance on the Western Wall compromise (an agreement scrapped by Netanyahu to guarantee a permanent pluralistic prayer pavilion at the site, with joint oversight involving non-Orthodox Jewish representatives), and on the ultra-Orthodox monopoly on life cycle events?
I don’t want to get into the specifics. I don’t know all the details in depth. But one thing I know. They are Jews like all others. They need to be treated equally in every way. The Western Wall compromise must be implemented. I will implement it. It is not a religious issue, it’s a political issue. It’s not that the rabbis say it is forbidden. The fact is that the rabbi of the Western Wall was part of this arrangement and (Attorney General Avichai) Mandelblit, who wears a black kippa (indicating adherence to Orthodox Judaism), was part of this arrangement. It’s just a political matter that has to be approved.
We have a big problem with American Jewry, and it’s not just over the Western Wall. It’s a lot more than that. We’ve taken them for granted for too many years.
We have to embrace them again, to remember that we are one people. And we have to educate our children about the importance of American Jewry, so that they are familiar with American Jewry. This is a huge community of millions. We don’t appreciate its size.
Netanyahu ought to resign right now because of the corruption investigations against him? Or absolutely not? Where’s your line?
First of all, the prime minister has admitted receiving $200,000 worth of gifts. It’s not a question of whether he did or not. He admits it.
I don’t think we know that he has acknowledged that sum. (Netanyahu repeatedly denies any wrongdoing.)
There is no argument about the scale of the gifts. He admits it. That’s very grave, in my opinion.
More widely, this process has brought the government to a place where it doesn’t function. Each minister follows his or her own policy. Therefore it’s clear to me that the country should go to elections. It’s better for Israel that there be elections rather than this process of government collapse.
So your position is we need elections now, not that the prime minister ought to resign now, when he’s not been charged with anything?
How worried are you about corruption in Israel, not just political corruption, but the whole dark side of the Israeli tech economy which gave rise to the multi-billion dollar binary options scam and now, since binary options was banned, seems to be in danger of replicating itself with crypto-currency scams? A whole sub-section of the economy where thousands of Israelis go to work each day stealing money and the police do next to nothing. Are you even aware of this?
There is a problem of corruption… It starts at the top
Last week we published our program on the war against corruption. (This Zionist Union project promises the cancellation of all “corrupt legislation” passed by the current government; the recruitment of the best people to public office; the creation of new deterrents and sanctions to prevent corruption in government, and a new focus on deepening a culture of transparency and responsibility). There is a problem of corruption and it’s getting worse.
The story of corruption begins with a culture of corruption. When the culture is that it’s legitimate, everyone starts doing it. When (Israel’s Ambassador to the UN) Danny Danon takes NIS 15 million and nobody does anything about it, that gives legitimacy. (Danon denies any wrongdoing.) That’s the real story.
There could be corruption in our ranks too. We could find out about somebody tomorrow. I can’t promise it doesn’t exist. But I can promise that I would have no tolerance whatsoever for any corrupt official and I will make it crystal clear that it’s unacceptable. That’s the difference between us and the Likud today and it’s a huge difference. Something comes out about (minister) Ayoub Kara. They close ranks. And it all starts at the top.
When it starts at the top, the public sees and says, it’s okay to do this. Some clerk in some office looks up and says, if Yvette Liberman, the head of a corrupt party — every one of them involved in a different criminal process — if he can be the defense minister of the state of Israel, then anything goes. That’s one of the issues we’ll tackle.
Do you have confidence that Mandelblit will make the appropriate decisions when it comes to Netanyahu?
I see no reason not to rely on him.
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