Israel Pulse

Can plan to annex settlement blocs revive Israel's Labor Party?

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Article Summary
Senior Labor Party member Eitan Cabel’s plan for unilateral separation from the Palestinians and the annexation of major settlement blocs has caused a commotion that might actually be good for the party.

Senior Labor Party member Eitan Cabel recently published a new plan that he qualified as a “sobering-up initiative.” According to his proposal, which he presented in a May 24 Haaretz editorial, Israel should not wait for the Palestinians to negotiate a two-state solution, but should instead proceed with unilateral steps. Cabel’s plan has caused a commotion within Labor, but he is not surrendering to the right as many of his fellow party members claim. He is an important voice on the center-left who wants to introduce a pragmatic and relevant new agenda.

As one of the longest-serving Knesset members, Cabel has long been a steady and enthusiastic advocate of separation from the Palestinians in the form of a two-state solution. Now, in his Haaretz piece, he calls on Labor members to wake up. The plan that he laid out is not an attempt by Cabel to turn his back on his own vision. Rather, he simply proposes postponing it, because it is impossible to achieve for the time being.

That is why the attacks on Cabel seem to make no sense. Within Labor, he has been subjected to aggressive responses and even calls to suspend him. His fellow party members should instead be celebrating that there is one among them trying to initiate an internal ideological discussion so that a party that has failed time and again at the ballot box can regain its relevance and win back public trust. Instead, that one person is being denounced and condemned.

“We don’t need to open our eyes,” Labor Party member Itzik Shmuli wrote in a Haaretz editorial of his own. “We need to be convinced that we are on the right path.” Meanwhile, party chairman Avi Gabbay clarified that Cabel’s proposal is his own and not representative of the party.

Cabel in his editorial calls on his fellow party members to stop clinging to old ideas so as to prevent an irreversible situation in which Israel becomes a binational state, instead of a Jewish and democratic nation. If Israel annexes the West Bank, Palestinians will one day become the majority population. Cabel’s starting point is that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is not interested in negotiations, and with no one to negotiate with, it is up to Israel to take its fate into its own hands. He claims that the right-wing government is perpetuating the existing situation and doing nothing to prevent a binational state, a scenario that he considers almost inevitable.

Instead, Cabel proposes that Israel annex the major West Bank settlement blocs, which are home to 300,000 of the 400,000 settlers. This will determine the status of settlers living in Gush Etzion, Maaleh Adumim, Karnei Shomron, Ariel and the Jordan Valley. At the same time, there would be a complete freeze on construction outside the blocs, and negotiations with the remaining settlers to evacuate their homes in exchange for financial compensation. Cabel believes that these moves will make it possible for Israel to determine its future borders unilaterally, instead of waiting for the Palestinians.

Cabel wrote, “I am not for a moment giving up on the desire for peace, but I also believe that given the reality that emerged in the past decade, Israel must open its eyes. We cannot wait for the Palestinians, because Mahmoud Abbas has already given up on the idea of a two-state solution.”

Cabel claims that his party is making a mistake in refusing to let go of the ideas behind the Oslo Accords (1993, 1995), which he says collapsed long ago. The party, he believes, is ignoring the new situation in the region. Cabel asserts that the Oslo paradigm assumes that it is possible through peace treaties to arrive at a Middle East with open borders like Europe. He also contends that this ideal collapsed once it became clear that is impossible for the security forces to rein in the terrorist organizations.

“Oslo” is a very loaded term in Israeli society. The Oslo agreement signed a quarter of a century ago between Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat are synonymous with the two-state solution and separation from the Palestinians. They are also the legacy of Rabin, who paid with his life — assassinated by a far-right Israeli Jew in 1995 — to reach a peace agreement. That is why the ideas presented by Cabel seem, at first glance, unjustifiably heretical and a betrayal of the diplomatic vision that distinguishes Labor from the right.

Despite the arguments against him, Cabel has not become an agent of the right-wing HaBayit HaYehudi within the Labor Party. In fact, he is far from it. Anyone with an open mind who reads his plan in depth will discover that all it really proposes is a pragmatic and contemporary approach based on the recognition that separation between Israel and the Palestinians is inevitable.

Cabel’s plan is reminiscent of the convergence plan of former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on the eve of the 2006 election. “Convergence” referred to a unilateral move that Olmert wanted to initiate in the belief that Israel must determine its own borders instead of waiting for the Palestinians. According to Olmert's plan, the major settlement blocs would be incorporated into the State of Israel, while isolated settlements would be evacuated. Neither then, nor now, was Olmert suspected of lacking political daring or of groveling before the right. In fact, it was the exact opposite.

There are grounds for debating Cabel’s ideas. In fact, it would be worthwhile for Labor to discuss them. There is no reason to fear that the party has lost its way and is kowtowing to the right. There have always been diverse opinions within Labor. It was known for its penetrating ideological debates between its more security-oriented members and the pragmatists, that is, the hawkish camp and the more dovish camp. Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, was a member of the former as was Rabin. The debate itself is essential. Only a debate can help a party that has failed in election after election. A debate of this kind would show the public that Labor is a vibrant, democratic party with many different ideas, as befits a large party that wants to come to power and as it was when it held power.

Cabel’s plan is an attempt to set an inner-party dialogue in motion and make the party relevant when it confronts the right. Cabel’s diagnosis is correct. Israelis are not convinced that it is necessary to cling to the ideas of Oslo. These ideas belong to a different time and different circumstances. Some people see the release of Cabel's plan as the greatest proof that Labor and the left have lost their way, that they are desperate and chaotic, that they are trying to imitate the right. In fact, the opposite is true.

Cabel’s plan is not fully formulated. It lacks answers to many important issues, such as the citizenship of Palestinians living in the major settlement blocs. On the other hand, it breathes life into the party by forcing its members to debate the best ways to remain relevant while adhering to the framework of a two-state solution.

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Mazal Mualem is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse and formerly the senior political correspondent for Maariv and Haaretz. She also presents a weekly TV show covering social issues on the Knesset channel. On Twitter: @mazalm3

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