Middle Israel: Labor and settlements - Enemies, a love story

The Labor Party led the settlement projects in the Jordan Valley and in the Sinai Desert, and it annexed east Jerusalem and built Ramat Eshkol, Gilo, Ramot and Armon Hanatziv.

Avi Gabbay (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Avi Gabbay
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Celebrating in June 1977 the 10th anniversary of the kibbutz that by then sported blossoming apple orchards, a profitable gravel mine, elegant new houses and also 50 locally born babies, Labor Party daily Davar sent there a reporter and then headlined his cheering story: “The beautiful people of Merom Golan.”
Merom Golan – which settled on windswept Mount Bental 50 summers ago – was not only the Labor movement’s first settlement beyond the Green Line, and not only the first of 33 Israeli settlements on the Golan Heights, but also the first Israeli settlement beyond the Green Line.
The Labor Party also led the settlement projects in the Jordan Valley and in the Sinai Desert, and it annexed east Jerusalem and built Ramat Eshkol, Gilo, Ramot and Armon Hanatziv, where 120,000 Jews now live on the capital’s previously Jordanian side.
This is besides the pre-state era when the Labor movement idolized the settler as its role model and culture hero; the ultimate Zionist redeemer; the ghetto Jew’s antithesis.
It should therefore have not even been news when new Labor Party chairman Avi Gabbay this week said a peace agreement with the Palestinians should not entail Jewish settlers’ removal.
Instead, his statement unleashed a salvo of reprimands, ranging from the Zionist Union’s Tzipi Livni (“his positions are not ours”) through Meretz’s Zehava Gal-On (Gabbay is “blinking rightward”) to a Peace Now communique (“Gabbay is mistaken and misleading”).
Gabbay’s internal logic doesn’t even need explanation. His question – if there is peace, why can’t Jews live in the West Bank? – is sound, even before one considers Yossi Beilin’s timely reminder, while defending Gabbay, that Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qurei (Abu Ala) said publicly he would let all settlements stay in a prospective Palestinian state.
Why, then, did Gabbay have to say what should have been obvious, namely, that his party respects settlers, even if they don’t vote Labor, and that evacuating settlements is no simple thing, because “there are people living there”? The reason is as simple as it is tragic: The Labor Party was hijacked.
THE ORIGINAL Labor movement never thought settling beyond the Green Line was illegal, much less immoral. What it debated was not the legitimacy but the wisdom of inserting Jews into the densely Palestinian continuum between Jenin and Ramallah, and between Bethlehem and Hebron.
Labor Party leaders thought that imposing Israel on a large hostile population was impractical and possibly also disastrous, while relinquishing land could produce peace. They therefore sent settlers to the underpopulated Golan Heights, Jordan Valley and Sinai Desert, while hoping to someday bring peace.
It follows that those who snidely reminded Gabbay this week of his origins in a family of Likudniks don’t realize that in saluting settlers he is merely restoring Labor’s original ethos. And they don’t realize this because the Labor Party was torn from its own roots by extremists who incited to not just disagree with the West Bank settlement project but to delegitimize and also demonize it.
Gabbay is not the first to seek an end to this defamation’s nihilism.
His two immediate predecessors went there before him: first, Shelly Yacimovich acknowledged Hebron’s “significance to our national heritage” and also refuted the far-Left’s mantra that the settlements’ budgeting saps social spending; and then Isaac Herzog said the two-state solution is for now “not feasible.”
Behind these statements lurk the frustration of a party that hasn’t won since last century; the realization that its peace-in-our-time rhetoric is unelectable; and the calculation that wooing its lost voters means somehow separating Labor from the rest of the Left.
The question is how, and the answer lies in what Labor’s politicians still refuse to do: confess.
MIDDLE ISRAELIS who backed the Oslo deal believed its Palestinian side was sincere; that Labor’s leaders thoroughly explored Arab leaders’ attitudes, an impression that was enhanced by the 1994 peace agreement with Jordan and that year’s Middle East economic conference in Casablanca.
Subsequent violence and rhetoric convinced thousands that Labor’s statesmen had been duped. Labor’s voters did not abandon it because they disagreed with its long-term aims. They left Labor because of its short-term conceit, naiveté, and recklessness.
That failure of judgment was, and remains, the cause of Labor’s crisis, and that is what its leaders must discuss with their lost voters, like a trauma victim with a therapist.
Moreover, Labor’s was not only a failure of judgment but also a failure of governance, twice: First, Labor’s leaders relied on intuition, seeking no intelligence on our neighbors’ interest in the New Middle East vision that they claimed the Arab world would embrace. Second, Labor embarked on its peace adventure without seeking consensus.
That was not the Israeli tradition.
On issues of war and peace Israel sought consensus, most notably in the unity government that won the Six Day War and the 84:15 (and 17 abstentions) Knesset majority that approved the peace accord with Egypt. This pattern was broken first by the Likud, in the First Lebanon War, and then by Labor, in Oslo.
Menachem Begin collapsed following a reckless war, Labor collapsed following a reckless peace.
That is what the swing vote thought when it punished the Likud in 1984, and Labor since 2001.
Now, as Israeli ironies go, a man who once voted Likud is tasked with wooing the people who once voted Labor. That’s nice, as is also the respect to adversaries that he wants Labor to display. Yet it’s not enough. To return where it was during Yitzhak Rabin’s landslide in 1992, Labor must now say: Oslo was the right deal signed with the wrong people. It was our idea, and it failed. It failed just like the Greater Israel ideal failed, as most Israelis, even Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu, recognized the need for a Palestinian state. Now let’s seek a way to move ahead jointly on matters of war and peace, while going our separate ways on everything else.