JERUSALEM: The head of Israel’s main opposition Labour party drew fire from the left and right on Tuesday after saying that Israeli settlements could be retained in a future peace with the Palestinians.
In an interview Monday night with Israeli commercial TV Channel Two, Avi Gabbay said the concept of having to pull out of settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank as part of a peace treaty had become outdated.
“If you make peace why do you need to evict [settlers]? I think that the terminology in which we are accustomed to speak here, by which if you make a peace treaty you evict people are not necessarily right,” he said in Hebrew.
“If you make a peace agreement you can find solutions that don’t oblige you to dismantle [settlements],” he said. “You’re making peace!”
Gabbay, 50, was elected in July to head Labour, which has historically supported an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.
On Tuesday he elaborated somewhat on his previous day’s comments.
“I am in favour of reaching a diplomatic solution which is based on two states for two peoples, where their state is demilitarised,” he told Channel Two.
Palestinians publicly demand an end to Israel’s military occupation and its settlements, which are illegal under international law and seen by a large part of the international community as a main obstacle to peace.
Hagit Ofran, of Israeli settlement watchdog Peace Now, said Gabbay was deceiving the public by proposing an outcome which would be unattainable in practice.
“It is clear to everybody there will be no agreement without some vacating of settlements,” she told AFP. “He should not be selling illusions to people.”
Much of the Israeli public believes that should a peace deal ever happen, the large groupings of settlements, where the majority of settlers live, will be annexed to the Jewish state and the Palestinians could be compensated with uninhabited Israeli land elsewhere.
In his remarks on Tuesday Gabbay appeared to imply that the smaller, remote settlements could be given up, speaking of a future where specifically the settlement blocs “remain under our full sovereignty.”
“We need to prevent as far as possible eviction of Jews from their homes as we also need to avoid evicting Palestinians from their homes,” he said.
Political scientist Avraham Diskin, of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said Gabbay was tapping into a consensus which had shifted since Labour’s heyday decades ago.
“He simply said something pragmatic which suits the reality and which the majority of the voters believe,” he told AFP in Hebrew.
“Perhaps he doesn’t believe it himself but he wants to be elected, he wants to be prime minister, so he said what everybody thinks.”
Environment Minister Zeev Elkin, of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right wing Likud party, also believed Gabbay’s comments were tactical rather than indicating a sea-change in Labour policy.
“He is trying to dress the left in the clothes of the right,” Elkin said.
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