The Labor Party’s July 2 leadership race kicked off in earnest this week when current chairman Avi Gabbay announced that he is not seeking reelection to the post or the Knesset and would quit politics.
The decision left many in Labor looking for “the Anti-Gabbay” as the party’s next leader. Gabbay flip-flopped on key issues such as the settlements, whether the Left forgot what it means to be Jewish, and whether the party should join a government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. That could pave the way for a politician known for sticking to her convictions.
Gabbay admitted once to voting Likud (and later denied it) and then was in Kulanu before joining Labor just ahead of its leadership race. That could persuade Labor members to look for a leader with roots in the party.
Although Gabbay was raised poor, he is a multimillionaire who could not necessarily relate to the current concerns of the lowest socioeconomic classes.
MK Stav Shaffir, who turned 34 last month, was a college student before entering the Knesset. She never made millions. She has no mortgage, but she has the Labor Party’s values, and that is what she believes Labor members are looking for.
“I will not sit in a government with Netanyahu, who is trying to use his seat to avoid a trial and is ready to ruin everything to escape going to jail,” Shaffir told The Jerusalem Post in a late night phone interview on her way home to Tel Aviv from a political event in Beersheba. “Everything Netanyahu promotes right now is 180 degrees the opposite of what I believe should happen in this country.”
In the interview, in which she spoke in perfect English at Netanyahu’s level of proficiency, Shaffir said she is proud that the majority of the Labor faction defied its leader and prevented him from taking the party into Netanyahu’s coalition.
“Bibi failed to form a government, and he failed so badly that he even came to us,” she said. “He was so desperate that he was willing to give jobs to anyone.
“Gabbay and I disagreed on many things related to our identity and values.”
For example, Shaffir said, she felt embarrassed by how Gabbay ousted Tzipi Livni from the Zionist Union on live television. She said she found Livni courageous and inspiring and did not want the partnership to end.
“That was a really bad mistake,” Shaffir said. “The conclusion is that compromising our values to join the Right and being afraid of talking about what we believe in has never proven to be the right thing to do.”
Shaffir said the public is being misled to believe that the country is moving to the Right. She cited statistics on support for the two-state solution and willingness to pay higher taxes to pay for the health of the needy.
IF SHE wins the primary, Shaffir will consider any political bond for Labor that could increase the size of the Center-Left bloc and what she calls “the democratic camp.” That could include Meretz and the “persistent and courageous” protesters who demonstrated weekly outside the home of Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit for more than a year.
Shaffir built a name for herself as a protester, leading the socioeconomic demonstrations of the summer of 2011 alongside Daphni Leef and Shaffir’s fellow Labor leadership candidate Itzik Shmuli on the streets of Tel Aviv. Now she believes the time has come for the young leaders to take over the country.
“It is time for a new generation to lead the party and build its future,” she said. “Being relatively young, I can consider the long term. Labor can build a courageous ideological front for the democratic camp. That is our role. We need to make sure our country won’t be lost to the corrupt Right of Netanyahu and extreme religious Right. We need to unite for our democracy.”
The April 9 election and its aftermath should be a wake-up call, Shaffir said, because Netanyahu was caught lying about not pursuing personal legislation to gain immunity and avoid prosecution.
“We got a view of what the next government would look like,” she said. “It would push women out of the army, seek a state of Jewish law, annex the West Bank and bring about a Palestinian majority and Israel being a state of all its people. The goal of Zionism would be lost.”
With all due respect to conscription of haredi (ultra-Orthodox) yeshiva students, which Shaffir calls “a nonissue,” she said the September 17 election will be a referendum on Israeli democracy.
“There is a national crisis, and we are on the verge of losing our democracy,” she said. “It’s serious, no joke or political game. There are moments in a nation’s history that take more courage, and that courage is needed now. Labor needs to act differently than it has over the past two decades, restart and build a serious ideological movement that will change how things work. That is why I decided to run for the leadership now – because I couldn’t wait anymore for someone else to do it.”
Since Shaffir announced that she is running last week, some 2,500 young people have asked her campaign how to join the party and vote in the primary. Labor institutions have gone back and forth on the voting body for the race, but the 60,000 current Labor Party members – and perhaps newcomers as well – are expected to be eligible to vote on July 2.
She joked at the start of her talk in Beersheba on Wednesday that the procedure for choosing the new leader could change by the end of it – and, in fact, it did.
“My party needs to stop dealing with its own political hackery and start asking the public for support and preparing for the election, which is getting close,” she said. “It’s very unfortunate that we are still dealing with internal procedures. After a devastating failure in the last election, the right thing to do is to go out to the street and ask everyone in the democratic camp to join, to empower them. Choosing the leadership shouldn’t be an internal, boring procedure but a festival of politics, telling people what we believe in and getting them excited about it.”
What Shaffir believes in is very clear. At a conference on democracy and foreign policy organized by Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies and the Davis Institute this week, she said her first goal as Labor leader would be to create an ideological alternative to the rule of the Right.
“Without a clear border with the Palestinians, Israel won’t have security,” she said. “Israel was founded with very progressive ideals. All of these ideals are now at risk. We need to bring back hope by not talking about Bibi but turning the discussion into values people care about like the healthcare system, education, making peace and how we operate according to our security needs.”
SHAFFIR HAS also taken a strong stand against the effort to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel. Two years ago, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten invited her to Minneapolis to address the teachers union, which was considering a resolution supporting BDS. After she flew 24 hours to get there, there were teachers against allowing her to come on stage.
“I spoke about our lives, our dreams, our fears, and how my generation sees the world,” Shaffir recalled. “They canceled the BDS resolution. I’ll go everywhere to talk to people, share ideas and convince them that the best way to move forward is to work together.”
Shaffir, who is popular in progressive circles in American Jewry, called BDS “very unprogressive,” and said Zionism is a very progressive movement. She said instead of boycotting, progressives should create a united movement to defend liberal democratic values and help both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict overcome challenges.
“Being progressive is about taking responsibility and caring,” she said. “Boycotting hurts progressives here and those who want to dedicate their life to making peace happen. BDS is not for peace. They are an antisemitic movement and definitely not our partners. Those who want to advance peace should support us on both sides who have dedicated our lives to making peace become a reality for both peoples.”
Shaffir explains to groups abroad that in Israel there is a debate between those on the far Right who want annexation and those in the democratic camp who want a clear border and long-lasting peace.
“We have to show them the different voices,” she said. “People around the world don’t know that a majority of Israelis are in favor of a two-state solution, even after suicide bombers and other terrorism, a lack of security, a lack of confidence and trust and 40 years of right-wing governments telling us it’s impossible.”
Shaffir defended the right of American Democratic Party presidential candidates to say they are pro-Israel while criticizing Netanyahu’s policies, saying that “between friends it’s okay to sometimes criticize and help make life better.”
If elected, Shaffir would use her post to reach out to Democrats in the US and help make them more pro-Israel. She already started that effort in a widely circulated YouTube video in March under the slogan “Most Israelis are not Netanyahu.”
“The world sees us as only Netanyahu, and his voice is the only voice they hear,” she lamented. “To maintain close connections, it must be clear we have two sides. It helps bring Democrats closer to know a majority of Israelis are pro-peace and in favor of every stream being able to practice Judaism the way they want. They get a distorted picture of Israel. Most Israelis just want to lead normal lives and give inspiration to other nations to make life better. That’s the Israel Americans should know.”
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