Israeli Prime Ministerial Hopeful Avi Gabbay: We Should Scare Our Enemies, Instead of Letting Them Scare Us
Turmoil is the new status quo in the halls of the Knesset, amid a number of deepening police investigations into corruption allegations against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. And while it is too soon to write the long-serving leader’s political epitaph (he denies any wrongdoing, repeatedly claiming, “There won’t be anything, because there isn’t anything”), some observers are starting to ponder what a post-Netanyahu Israel might look like.
One potential key player in any new order stands to be freshly-minted Labor Party Chairman Avi Gabbay. Since winning the center-left party’s leadership primaries last summer, the 50-year-old former businessman has been crisscrossing Israel, introducing himself to voters and trying to rejuvenate a movement worn down by two decades of electoral defeats.
This past week, Gabbay made his first trip to the US as the head of Labor to attend the Saban Forum in Washington, DC, and he sat down on the sidelines of the elite annual gathering of American and Israeli officials for an interview with The Algemeiner.
Topics of discussion included the Iran nuclear deal, the conflict with the Palestinians, the Jerusalem embassy issue, the BDS campaign and Israel’s relations with American Jewry, among other matters. The following is an edited transcript of the conversation.
Q: You are relatively unknown in the US. What do you want Americans, and in particular Jews who care about Israel, to know about you?
A: First of all, they should know that I’m going to be the next prime minister of Israel. I want to beat Netanyahu and I want to beat him in an election, not investigations. Second, it’s important that they know my story. I’m not a professional politician. I came from business to politics.
Q: If you become prime minister, what would be your top priority?
A: I believe in bringing unity to Israel, rather than division. That’s the most important thing for me.
What unites us in Israel are three things — being aggressive on security; trying to, at least, find a path to making peace with the Palestinians, to solve the problem of the fact that we want to be a democratic state with a Jewish majority; and having a just economy, Israelis don’t believe in an economy that serves only the strong.
My goal is to reunite the people of Israel — because today, in Israel, we’re separated into groups. People feel this stress on the street. I want to be the prime minister of every Israeli. I don’t want be the prime minister of one camp or one side. I don’t want to be the prime minister of Tel Aviv. I want to be the prime minister of all of Israel.
And I want to run the country in favor of the people and restore the trust of young people in the country. Today, because of the corrupt culture of politics in Israel, with politicians not working for the public, young people in Israel don’t believe in the system.
Also, we should improve the economy, based on a free market.
Q: Tell me about your personal background.
A: My parents came from Morocco in 1964 and I was born in 1967. I lived until I was about 15 in a transit camp. My parents were hard workers, my father was a technician with Bezeq (Israel’s largest telecommunications firm). Surprisingly, I later became the CEO of this same company. I grew up in a family of eight kids, went to the army and was a combat intelligence officer in Lebanon for four years, dealing mainly with Hezbollah and Iran. Later on, I studied, getting a B.A. in economics and a M.B.A. I worked in the Ministry of Finance for four and a half years and later on I joined Bezeq. I was promoted very quickly and I became the CEO of the company. And for six years that’s what I did. During that time, the company was privatized.
Later on, I joined with Moshe Kahlon and we formed a new party — Kulanu. I was minister of environmental protection for one year and I then resigned in May 2016 because of the nomination of Avigdor Lieberman as minister of defense, a nomination that in my opinion was corrupt, because everybody knew he was not suitable for this job. I said to myself, this is a red line that cannot be crossed.
I joined Labor at the end of last year and I became its chairman in six months.
Q: What is the greatest security challenge facing Israel?
A: First of all, Israel is very strong. It’s very powerful country. We should scare our enemies, instead of letting them scare our people. That’s the difference between Netanyahu and me. Netanyahu tends to scare our people. I want to scare our enemies.
Second, there is no existential threat to Israel. We have to have enough confidence in ourselves.
The only issue that is really a serious threat is the Iranian nuclear project. We have to fight it and do what is needed to not let Iran go nuclear. We cannot permit it to happen.
Another issue is the missiles in Lebanon and Syria. This is the next war — a war of missiles, not Iranian troops or militias that will come and try to conquer the Golan Heights. So we have to be well-prepared for that, in terms of technology and having enough anti-missile systems.
Q: What was your view of the Iran nuclear deal?
A: Do I like this agreement? No. Do I think we should just abolish it? No. We should fix it, in order to improve it. Because the second phase of this Iran deal is something we cannot live with. We cannot give Iran an opportunity to be a nuclear country. And this agreement, that’s what it says, at the end of 15 years, Iran can be nuclear. And we can not accept it. That’s why we should have a comprehensive policy — built on diplomacy, sanctions and military action, if needed — in order to prevent it.
Q: What is your approach to the conflict with the Palestinians?
A: What we see with the Palestinians today is a blame game. That’s what we do and that’s what they do. The blame game doesn’t serve us or them and it won’t be remembered, it’s a sentence in history. We have to try to build trust with them, in order to negotiate. I believe we have to try to negotiate over a two-state solution. This is the only solution that I know can maintain our security, my grandchildren’s security, and keep us as a Jewish-majority, democratic state.
Q: What do you think you can do differently than others whose peacemaking bids have failed in the past?
A: I think the major issue is building trust. I come from business, so I’ve managed many negotiations in my life. I know that you cannot negotiate without trust. Politicians today don’t build trust. They don’t build relationships with Arabs and Palestinians.
It’s not that I’m saying the Palestinians are ok. They’ve refused many good offers. They’ve made many mistakes. But, in the end, we’re the strong party here and we have to try to make progress in negotiations, even without an agreement. This would be good for us, it would serve us in the world, serve us here in America and serve our economy, so we have to try.
Q: What are your thoughts on the Trump administration’s attempt, led by Jared Kushner, to renew the peace process?
A: I really appreciate that Donald Trump came to Israel during his first overseas trip. And he came to the Kotel (Western Wall). This was very symbolic. And I really appreciate the fact they are making an effort and trying to solve the problem. It looks like they are very serious about it and it looks like they are getting very deep into the issue. So we are all looking forward to see the results of this.
Q: Do you think Trump should relocate the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem?
A: Of course I’m in favor of moving the embassy to Jerusalem. This is our capital. So I hope that Trump will make the right decision about this.
Q: Has there been a paradigm shift in the Middle East in recent years regarding Israel? And, if so, does this make peace more likely?
A: First, I don’t think we’ll reach any agreement without the regional countries. So we have to combine negotiations with the Palestinians and the others. And, second, it looks like some countries, such as Saudi Arabia, which 20 years ago were not really in favor of a peace agreement with Israel, are now very in favor. So while in the past they might have been an obstacle, today they are fostering negotiations and they want to see peace here. This is very positive.
Q: What should Israel do to counter the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement?
A: Sometimes phenomenons that are small get bigger and bigger and you lose control of them, so we have to fight it. Still, as far as I’ve heard, it’s a relatively non-significant movement, and part of the problem is we talk about it too much, and we might have even amplified the issue. But we do have to handle it and be aware of the consequences of such a movement.
Q: Are you concerned that Israel seems to have become a more partisan issue in America in recent years?
A: It looks like it’s a part of policy, a policy that I don’t accept. At the end, we should always be bipartisan. This is one of the goals of our relations with America. We are not a part of your politics, and you are not a part of our politics. So we should be bipartisan and put effort into that. We should not rely on one administration, because administrations change all the time. It’s a risk that Israel cannot take.
Q: Do you believe, as many assert, that the gap between Israel and American Jews is getting wider?
A: This is my sixth day here in America, and I’ve met many American Jewish leaders. And among them there were leftists and rightists, Reform, Conservative and Orthodox. And there’s one thing they united on — that there is a crisis between American Jewry and the government of Israel. I’ve met many people who, it’s like Israel hurts them, instead of hugging them, loving them and appreciating the great contributions of American Jewry to Israel. They feel that we are going opposite ways, and this is something we have to take care of.
First of all, there is the issue of educating our kids in Israel to know American Jewry. They know about the history of Jews in France 200 years ago, but they don’t know American Jewry.
Second, there are issues like the Kotel (Western Wall) reform, that we should accept it. There was a deal about it, after negotiations. It’s not an issue of religion, because, as you know, the rabbi of the Kotel was in favor. And we have to do it.
It’s an issue of attitude. What is your attitude toward American Jews? We should improve it, and it should be much more understanding.
In the end, we’re one people, we’re one nation. How come one nation is divided over nothing? There’s nothing that we have to fight over. We have to be together.