Israel’s new Labour leader brings new ‘hope’ to party
London - Israel’s main opposition Labour Party elected as its new leader a former businessman who only joined the party a few months ago, hoping a fresh approach can topple Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
Avi Gabbay, 50, the former head of one of Israel’s largest telecommunications companies, is far from the typical leader of the party that once dominated the country’s politics.
Gabbay defeated Amir Peretz, a former party leader and defence minister, by a small margin in a run-off vote.
“This is the day hope won,” Gabbay said in his victory speech outside his home in Tel Aviv. “The day of returning to our senses. The day of returning to our values.”
He added: “Our task now is to embark on a journey that will fulfil these hopes for Israeli citizens.”
Gabbay grew up in Jerusalem in a working-class family that had emigrated from Morocco and has a reputation of having succeeded on his own efforts. Gabbay stressed his humble beginnings as the seventh of eight children.
He has never been a member of Israel’s Knesset and joined Labour in December before mounting what was once seen as a long-shot bid to become its leader.
Gabbay served a brief stint as environment minister under Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition but resigned in protest last year when Netanyahu ousted Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon in favour of nationalist Avigdor Lieberman.
“His victory stunned Israeli political analysts, who compared him to (French President Emmanuel) Macron, (British opposition leader) Jeremy Corbyn and (US President) Donald Trump — all outsiders who rode a wave of energy and enthusiasm to rise to the top tier of politics in their country,” wrote Raf Sanchez in the British newspaper the Telegraph.
Gabbay repeatedly talked of injecting new life into Labour, perceived by many as having grown stagnant, but he faces a difficult task to win back voters at a time when Israeli politics has shifted to the right, with Netanyahu’s Likud in power since 2009.
Analysts pointed to Gabbay’s background as a Mizrahi — Jews of Middle Eastern or North African origin — as an asset.
“The question now is whether Gabbay can attract the support of working-class Mizrahi voters who Netanyahu and his Likud party have long counted on to stay in office,” wrote Peter Beaumont in the Guardian.
Labour has been viewed as a party of elites run by the Ashkenazi — Jews of European origin traditionally seen as the establishment in Israel. The party’s early leaders took a paternalistic attitude towards Jewish immigrants from Arabic-speaking countries. Many of those immigrants were sent to shantytown transit camps and largely sidelined.
A poll indicated Israel’s Labour Party received a big boost from Gabbay’s election. The Midgam survey commissioned by Channel 2 TV had the opposition’s Gabbay-led Zionist Union bloc second after Netanyahu’s Likud.
Likud would win 25 of parliament’s 120 seats and Gabbay’s bloc would get 20. Previous polls showed the bloc fourth or fifth. The poll surveyed 500 Israelis and had a margin of error of 3.6 percentage points.
“The party, which has been down for the count for a long time, has woken up and, with the last of its strength, given itself a vital tank of oxygen, at least in the near term,” wrote Yossi Verter in Haaretz.
Observers, however, said that the Labour Party may not have what it takes to be in government.
Mazal Mualem wrote in Al-Monitor that there were about 31,000 people voting in the Labour Party race for a new leader, with 16,080 choosing Gabbay. “This skimpy electorate says something about the party’s sad state. It shows how unattractive it has become,” he added.
It is unlikely the Labour Party could form a coalition with the Arab parties’ Joint List, composed mainly of Israeli citizens of Palestinian origin.
“The Joint List’s composition includes anti-Zionist elements like [Haneen] Zoabi and [Jamal] Zahalka, so we can’t cooperate with this composition,” Gabbay told Haaretz before his election.