Avi Gabbay’s recent appearance at the Saban Forum – an annual US gathering on Middle East policy – provided his most comprehensive statement on the peace process since becoming leader of the Labor party in July.
In his remarks, Gabbay reiterated his support for a two-state solution, said it was time to end the “blame game” between the two sides and said a peace agreement between the two sides would benefit Israel’s security.
“A long-term peace agreement is our guarantee for Israel’s security. This is the future of our children and grandchildren, but unfortunately, in recent years we have witnessed a game of accusations instead of a diplomatic process. It’s time to stop it,” Labor’s leader said.
Expressing his frustration at the stalled peace process, Gabbay suggested: “When our children read the history books, they will see that the last decade will receive only a brief mention because nothing happened in it.”
Gabbay attempted to adopt an even-handed approach, calling both for an end to incitement by the Palestinian Authority and a reduction in settlement-building.
“We need to begin building trust on both sides, with the participation of other Arab states from the region. Such measures include stopping the incitement on the Palestinian side and stopping construction outside the blocs on the Israeli side. At the same time, we can reduce the number of Palestinians currently under Israeli civilian control as long as there is no security reason for it.”
Gabbay also made clear that he will make the potential peace dividend from any deal a central part of his campaign to become prime minister:
“Beyond security, a peace agreement is worth 18 billion dollars a year to the Israeli economy. This is a huge sum, which means that it will be possible, for example, to completely eliminate the VAT in Israel, which means that the cost of living can be reduced by 15 percent if there is a long-term diplomatic agreement.”
The Labor leader has faced some criticism from elements of the Israeli left for seeming to question whether all settlers could be removed from the West Bank – such statements have been widely interpreted as an attempt to woo voters on the Israeli right.
However, Gabbay’s position appears to be motivated by practicality rather than ideology and he has made clear that he wants to see settlement-building curtailed. Last month, for instance, he argued: “You can’t evacuate 100,000 people in any arrangement that may be, it’s impractical and unrealistic and not sensible. If we achieve an era of peace why would such a difficult scenario have to occur? On the other hand there’s no reason to increase the range of the problem.”
At the same time, Gabbay has also made clear his support for a two-state solution: “When it comes to diplomatic issues – I believe in territorial concessions, and in negotiations with the Palestinians. I also believe in a solution based on two states for two peoples, and a united Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty.”
Last week, Gabbay combined a welcome for the US decision to recognise formally Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, with a hope that it would be accompanied by trust-building measures that will “resuscitate” prospects for peace.
“We have to announce an end to settlement-building outside the [major settlement] blocs, to transfer Palestinian villages and neighborhoods in [Israeli-controlled areas of] the West Bank to civil Palestinian control. There is no realistic solution other than two states for two peoples,” the Labor leader said.
Indeed, in a recent interview with JTA Gabbay underlined his commitment to a two-state solution.
“I don’t see another solution that will keep Israel with a Jewish majority and keep it democratic, so it’s clear to me the basis is two states.”
At the same time, he has made clear that he wants to keep his negotiating hand free: “I can’t say what we will do in all the parameters. That’s exactly what you need to figure out in negotiations.”
In a further interview with the New York Times, Gabbay also attacked the divisiveness of the Netanyahu government. Recalling his short stint as a minister for the centrist Kulanu party – Gabbay resigned his job as environmental protection minister over the appointment of Avigdor Lieberman as defence minister in 2016 – the Labor leader said of cabinet meetings: “Every week it’s like something against somebody. It’s against the left, it’s against the media, against Arabs, and against, against, against.”
Labor’s rise in the polls has helped bring the opposition parties within striking distance of dislodging Benjamin Netanyahu’s government at the next election. Over the next 18 months, Gabbay will have the opportunity to prove he can bring peace with security to Israel.