On Gaza, differences between Labor and Likud are superficial

When it comes to Israeli policies, Labor likes to paint itself as the complete opposite of Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party. That is, unless we’re talking about Gaza.

By Aaron Magid

In the wake of the 2013 elections, Israel’s Labor Party was consistently critical of Netanyahu’s performance as prime minister. Just last month, Labor Chairman Isaac Herzog slammed Netanyahu for isolating Israel from the international community. “Netanyahu speaks [but] the world doesn’t listen,” exclaimed Herzog. Yet during the recent conflict in Gaza, the Labor Party’s usual critical approach towards Netanyahu shifted dramatically, with influential Labor lawmakers sounding eerily similar to their Likud counterparts.

In an interview, Labor MK Omer Barlev, expressed strong support for the Gaza operation. A former IDF commander of the prestigious Sayeret Markal unit, Lt. Gen. Barlev is considered one of the Labor Party’s experts on security issues. In fact, Bar Lev’s main criticism of Netanyahu was not that the government should have pushed for an earlier ceasefire, but rather that Israel needed to have launched the operation earlier.

Labor MK Omer Barlev. (יוסיוס/CC BY SA 3.0)
Labor MK Omer Barlev. (יוסיוס/CC BY SA 3.0)

When asked about the mounting Palestinian civilian death toll, including the attack on the UNRWA school, any Likud official including the hawkish MK Danny Danon would have felt comfortable with Barlev’s response. “You should ask Hamas. It is in their hands. They could have accepted the Egyptian cease-fire,” he said.

It is true that Barlev called for increased coordination with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas after the war in Gaza ends. But Netanyahu’s own policy towards Abbas has shifted. After Abbas condemned the kidnappings of the three Israeli teens in June, Netanyahu praised Abbas, “I do appreciate the statement against the kidnapping. It’s important.”

Bar Lev’s comments reflects the spirit of his party’s leader on the Gaza war. Three weeks into the operation, Herzog praised Netanyahu’s handling of the crisis, calling the prime minister’s decisions “responsible and focused,” and blamed Hamas for the continued rocket fire.

Labor’s support for Netanyahu’s actions in Gaza exemplifies its distance from Meretz, the other leftist party in the opposition. Meretz’s Chairwoman Zehava Gal-On condemned Netanyahu for sending ground troops into Gaza, saying “force cannot eradicate terrorism. There is no such thing as a deluxe ground invasion. It will end up just like Lebanon.”

Meretz Chairwoman Zehava Galon and opposition leader Yitzhak Herzog of Labor (Photo: Yotam Ronen/Activestills.org)
Meretz Chairwoman Zehava Galon and opposition leader Yitzhak Herzog of Labor (Photo: Yotam Ronen/Activestills.org)

Recent public opinion polls may also explain Labor’s swing to the right on Gaza. During three surveys throughout the war, the Israel Democracy Institute found that 95 percent of Israeli Jews found the Gaza operation “justified,” with fewer than 4 percent saying that the IDF used “excessive firepower.” A July 31 Globes poll showed that if elections were held today, Likud would jump to 31 seats, while Labor would fall to only 14. With the Israeli public increasingly unified against the Hamas threat of tunnels and rockets, Labor – the traditional head of Israel’s peace camp – is similarly adopting hawkish sentiments and attempting to appeal to the shifting Israeli viewpoint.

The text of the interview is below:

As a MK in the opposition, how would you describe the Netanyahu government’s performance in Gaza? 

The overall deceleration of the military mission was and is correct. I think that the performance was too slow and too late at almost every stage. We should have entered with ground forces almost a week before we did it actively. If we had done it that way, then today we would have been in a much better position to achieve a ceasefire.

What are you hearing from Labor party activists?

Most of them support me in my views that I am expressing 100%. Most of those ceasefires ended unsuccessfully. Even the humanitarian ceasefire was unsuccessful because the other side did not use the opportunity for humanitarian reasons. I believe that right now it is up to the Palestinians.

The Labor Party has repeatedly called for significant IDF withdrawals from the West Bank. If this were to occur, wouldn’t Israel wake up to find tunnels in the heart of Jerusalem?

If Israel, with Egypt, the PA and U.S., would be able to reach an agreement to demilitarize Gaza and give them a commercial package benefits, this could be a good example for how this can be reached in the West Bank and vice versa. You are right with what you are saying. Right now when Hamas is firing rockets at Israel, it is very difficult to talk about a peace solution with the PA. There is no 100% proof in anything, but this is our responsibility to try and make a better future.

Do you support an immediate ceasefire right now?

Of course not. Right now they are sending rockets at Israeli civilians. Of course we cannot immediately or unilaterally stop the fighting.

As a member of the peace camp, are you concerned with the rising Palestinian death toll, including the attack on the UNRWA school?

You should ask Hamas. It is in their hands. They could have accepted the Egyptian ceasefire. They could have accepted several humanitarian ceasefires since then. I am sorry that Hamas is not concerned about the Palestinian deaths.

The Labor Party has consistently spoken about the need to preserve strong ties with the U.S., despite difficulties. Did you support Kerry’s July 27 proposal?

You mean that Israel should end the conflict by strengthening Hamas? It was the wrong proposal. It would humiliate Egypt regarding its position in the Arab World. Secondly, it would have strengthened Hamas because Hamas would end the military conflict, which they began, in their point of view with success.

Aaron Magid is a graduate student at Harvard University specializing in Middle Eastern Studies. He has written articles on Middle Eastern politics for The New Republic, Al-Monitor and Lebanon’s Daily Star. He tweets at @AaronMagid.

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