Newly elected Labor party chairman Avi Gabbay on Tuesday kicked off his election campaign to unseat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from power, pledging to double membership in the one-time powerhouse and win 30 Knesset seats in the next election.
Gabbay, 50, a former non-MK minister for the Kulanu party, was elected Monday as the new chairman of Labor, beating veteran lawmaker and former faction leader Amir Peretz in a dramatic turn of events for the long-embattled party.
“The State of Israel is headed to elections, we just don’t know the date,” he told activists and journalists in Tel Aviv.
Barring the dissolution of the government, elections are currently scheduled for November 2019.
The party “needs at least 100,000 members by the next election,” he added, nearly twice its current number of over 52,000.
In a direct challenge to Netanyahu’s Likud, Gabbay said “we will replace him. We will bring in the 30 [Knesset] seats necessary to replace him.
“The campaign to replace Netanyahu begins today.”
The Likud party currently has 30 seats in the Knesset, while the Zionist Union — comprising the Labor and Hatnua parties — holds 24. Polls conducted last week, before the second-round vote, indicated neither Peretz nor Gabbay would receive more than 15-18 seats in the next election as leader of the Labor party.
In an interview with the Ynet news website on Tuesday, Gabbay pledged his support to the two-state solution and said he opposed dividing Jerusalem.
“My positions are the positions of the Labor party — two states for two people, clear social economic and social democratic policies and protecting the High Court of Justice,” he said. “Jerusalem will remain unified in every scenario. There can be no negotiations about it. When I talk about relinquishing Arab villages, I’m talking about every Arab village that is called Jerusalem but is not really Jerusalem, isolated areas and villages that can’t be returned [to Israeli sovereignty] without harming security.”
“Abu Mazen [PA President Mahmoud Abbas] is certainly a [peace] partner,” he said.
The former businessman, who headed telecommunications giant Bezeq, also told the news site that a “welfare state is not a bad word.”
“We must create sources of income for the weak segments of the population and improve the public system that gives services to citizens,” Gabbay said.
Taking 52.4 percent of the vote compared to Peretz’s 47.6, Gabbay came from a near-2,000 vote deficit in the first round of the primary that was held last week to win, getting 16,080 votes compared to 14,734 votes for Peretz.
In last Tuesday’s first round vote, which saw incumbent Labor head Isaac Herzog removed from the running, Peretz finished in the lead with 32% (10,141 votes), followed by newcomer Gabbay with 27% (8,395), and an overall voter turnout of 59% of Labor Party members.
“You put your hope in a new leader and here I am before you,” Gabbay said in his victory speech.
“Today a new path begins. The path begins now. The path leads to a new government,” he said. “This path is for everyone. This path is for all the citizens of Israel.”
“My only concern is the good of the people, the good of the country,” said Gabbay, calling for unity among Israelis and urging all party supporters to back him.
Gabbay seen as the dark horse in the race, bringing fresh blood and a right-wing political history to the traditionally dovish party. He claims to have brought thousands of new members to the Labor party, a fact that may explain his surprise victory.
A former minister in Netanyahu’s government, Gabbay quit in May 2016, after coalition talks brought the Yisrael Beytenu party into the government, with a dramatic tirade accusing the coalition of leading Israel on a path to destruction.
That breakout moment for Gabbay, a relatively unknown minister who was not elected to Knesset but rather appointed as an external candidate by party leader Moshe Kahlon, was followed by his crossing the political aisle and joining the fight for the Labor leadership.
Gabbay’s victory sees him immediately taking the post of party leader, but not of Knesset opposition head, as he is not a sitting Knesset member. He must pick a lawmaker for that position, and a majority of opposition MKs must approve his choice. He has said that he will keep Herzog in the position.
Gabbay had an unusual path to become the leader of party.
He joined an elite intelligence unit during his mandatory military service and rose to the rank of major before leaving the army. He later studied economy and business at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He is married and has three children.
His career began in the Finance Ministry’s prestigious budget department, where he worked for some four years before moving to Bezeq. He eventually rose to become its director general.
As a minister, Gabbay was not outspoken on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, traditionally a key topic for a contender of the leadership of one of Israel’s largest parties.He holds centrist positions on the issue, calling for a demilitarized Palestinian state alongside Israel. His vision includes land swaps that would leave the large Israeli settlement blocs in place.
On his website, Gabbay also notes the importance of improving the economic situation in the Palestinian territories and the need to curb “extremist Islamist elements” there.
“The conflict can be resolved,” he wrote, but to do so “we need brave and determined leadership that’s not engaged in spins, incitement and dividing the people”.
Herzog’s downfall as party leader came after he alienated many of his party members in holding secret coalition negotiations with Netanyahu in 2016, which fell apart in May of that year. Since then, the opposition leader has advocated for other center and left-wing parties to forge a bloc to oust Netanyahu from power, though parties such as Yesh Atid have demurred.
The primaries came after Labor had plummeted over the past year in opinion polls, receiving a projected 10-12 seats (combined with the Hatnua party that makes up the Zionist Union faction), down from its current 24 seats.
Gabbay’s leadership will likely determine whether the center-left party, plagued by internal divisions, is able to become the main challenger to Netanyahu’s Likud, in the next elections, and, consequently, whether it could seize the premiership.
Meanwhile, the centrist Yesh Atid party appears to have wooed most of Labor’s voters, climbing steadily in surveys, and at this point poised to become the top contender against Likud, according to polls.
AFP contributed to this report.