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Israel Labor Party Elects Avi Gabbay as New Leader | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Avi Gabbay, the new leader of Israel’s Labor party, delivers his victory speech after winning the Labor party primary runoff, at an event in Tel Aviv, Israel July 10, 2017. (Reuters)

Former businessman Avi Gabbay has been elected on Monday to lead Israel’s main opposition Labor party, defeating longtime politician and former party leader Amir Peretz, the party said in a statement.

Gabbay, who only joined the party in December, took 52 percent of the votes in the runoff as it sought to regain waning influence and win back supporters.

“To anyone who doubted the vitality of Israeli democracy, to anyone who eulogized the Labor party,” he said in his victory speech to hundreds of jubilant supporters in Tel Aviv, “this night is their answer.”

“This night we celebrate a victory, and after this night, there will be a day of hope for Israel,” he said.

“Tomorrow, on Tuesday, the journey toward the election to change the Israeli government begins,” he said.

Nearly 59 percent of Labor’s 52,505 members voted in the contest for leadership of the veteran party, which was seeking a new face to boost its standings in the polls.

The candidates advanced to the runoff by beating five others in last week’s first round, with Peretz winning 32.7 percent and Gabbay 27.1 percent.

That vote saw current Labor chairman Isaac Herzog garner only 16.7 percent for a third-place finish, a rapid fall in popularity after leading the party in the last general elections in 2015.

Herzog has faced a barrage of criticism over his attempts to negotiate for his party to join Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition and over Labor’s slide in opinion polls.

In a statement following the vote, Herzog — who had endorsed Peretz ahead of the runoff — congratulated Gabbay on his “impressive victory” and said he would stand by him “to help strengthen Labor and change the government”.

Jerusalem-born Gabbay, the son of immigrants from Morocco, does not have a seat in the current parliament and so in his victory speech he asked Herzog to stay on as opposition leader for the time being.

Israeli politics has seen a shift rightward in recent years, with Netanyahu and his Likud party in power since 2009.

Centrist parties such as Yesh Atid and Kulanu — which Gabbay was a member of until recently — have also benefited at the expense of Labor.

The country’s last Labor prime minister was Ehud Barak from 1999 to 2001.

Ahead of the 2015 elections, Labor joined forces with Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua to form the Zionist Union, which won 24 seats in the 120-seat parliament to become the largest opposition to Netanyahu’s government.

Supporters of the two candidates in the runoff had hoped their backgrounds would help to widen Labour’s support.

Both are of Moroccan descent, rare for a leader of a major party in Israel, and they may be able to increase support for Labor among Mizrahi Jews of Middle Eastern or North African origin.

They also both support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But beyond that they have little in common.

Gabbay, 50, is seen as fresh face, having formerly headed Israeli telecommunications firm Bezeq before joining politics. He has never been a member of Israel’s parliament.

In 2014, he joined forces with former Likud minister Moshe Kahlon to form center-right Kulanu.

Kulanu won 10 seats in the 2015 general elections and joined Netanyahu’s coalition, with Gabbay appointed environment minister despite not being a parliament member.

He quit in 2016 in protest at the appointment of hardliner Avigdor Lieberman to head the defense ministry, saying the move was against Israel’s security interests and would deepen societal divisions.

Gabbay announced in December that he was joining the Labor party. Barak has announced his support for Gabbay in the runoff.

After polls opened on Monday, he said on his Facebook page that he would bring “hope and change” while injecting new life into the party.