Zionist Union MKs have already begun to grumble about Avi Gabbay’s leadership, less than four months after he was elected to head the party.
Labor, the main constituent of the Zionist Union, has a long history of not giving its leaders much time to acclimate to their new job, and none has served two consecutive terms in the 21st century.
Even the unhappy lawmakers, who spoke on condition of anonymity, say they want to give Gabbay a chance, but they expressed disappointment and frustration after a series of controversial statements and appointments of MKs to various positions in the Knesset.
One of those statements was that Israel would not have to evacuate settlements for there to be peace.
“There is no reason to evacuate settlements in a peace agreement,” Gabbay said last week. “If there is peace, then why evacuate? The dynamics of peacemaking that would require evacuation may not actually be correct. In a peace agreement, solutions can be found that do not require evacuations.”
Gabbay then clarified to Zionist Union MKs that he is committed to a two-state solution
and distinguishes between “settlement blocs and isolated settlements,” but that he does not think the borders should be drawn before negotiations start.
MKs Tzipi Livni, Nachman Shai, Itzik Shmuly and Ksenia Svetlova came out against his statement, but most kept mum, and some, like MK Michal Biran, actively defended him.
“Is Gabbay competing with Bibi [Netanyahu] or with [Yair] Lapid?” one disgruntled lawmaker asked. He explained that, although Gabbay hopes to dethrone Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Zionist Union is more realistically competing for votes from former Yesh Atid supporters.
The MK warned that Gabbay could alienate centrist voters if he reaches out too far to the Right.
“Gabbay can branch out to other people, but he has to keep one foot in Labor, or he’ll lose the usual voters,” another MK said.
At Zionist Union faction meetings, the leaders of the two parties within the faction – Livni, and the Labor leader, now Gabbay – speak to the press, as does the faction chairman, now MK Yoel Hasson. The latter pointed to the fact that Livni and Hasson are in Hatnua, not Labor, and Gabbay only because a member of Labor 10 months ago.
“Look at the three people leading the faction meetings – none of them is really from Labor,” Hasson said.
MKs pointed to the latest round of appointments to Knesset positions, saying that Gabbay gave jobs only to his loyalists – like MK Shelly Yacimovich, who’s now chairwoman of the State Control Committee – and to members of Tzipi Livni’s party – like Hasson – while lawmakers who supported other candidates for party chairman were shut out.
“Gabbay needs to show that he’s the leader of everyone in Labor, not just his people,” one said.
At the same time, Gabbay let previous Labor chairman Isaac Herzog remain in his position as leader of the opposition, since Gabbay, who is not an MK, cannot hold the title.
The MK who seemed to have been burned the worst by Gabbay is Hilik Bar, since Herzog promised him the role of faction chairman, and it was given to Hasson.
In exchange for giving up an influential position with high visibility, Bar was allowed to remain a deputy Knesset speaker, was given a spot on the prestigious Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, and is in charge of international affairs for Labor, which gave an official title to perform work he was already doing.
“Even if I’m not happy with everything, I think we need to work with the new leader. Shooting him in the foot is shooting the whole party,” Bar said. “Even if I didn’t support Gabbay [in the leadership primary], I choose, at this point, to back him, and time will tell.”
Bar is chairman of the Knesset Caucus for the Two- State Solution, and said he was originally disappointed by Gabbay’s statement about evacuating settlements, but after speaking to the Zionist Union leader, Bar found that the two agree. In Bar’s diplomatic plan, it says that Israelis should be allowed to live in a Palestinian state if they want to, rather than be evacuated from their homes.
“If the leader of Labor is now saying that, that’s great,” he said.
Bar warned that airing internal party problems will hurt Zionist Union electorally.
“I’m not going to attack Gabbay for no reason. In the end we’ll drop to 12 seats again,” Bar said. “Disagreements should be in closed rooms and not in the media, for the good of the party.”
Gabbay’s office declined to comment.