Former Kulanu minister Avi Gabbay was elected Monday as the new chairman of the Labor Party, beating veteran lawmaker and former leader Amir Peretz in a dramatic turn of events for the long-embattled party.
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 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, 50, 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,” said Gabbay who called for unity among all Israelis and urged all party supporters to back him.
“My only concern is the good of the people, the good of the country,” he said.
Gabbay and Peretz spoke by phone shortly after the results were announced, a statement from Gabbay said. Gabbay told Peretz that “I see you as a central partner in our mission, replacing the Netanyahu government.”
Herzog was one of the first to congratulate Gabbay, even though he had thrown his support behind Peretz in the runoff.
“I just spoke to Avi Gabbay and congratulated him on his impressive campaign,” said Herzog in a tweet. “I made it clear to him that I will stand beside him and help him strengthen the Labor Party and change the government. I wish him good luck.”
Gabbay and Peretz had since jockeyed for the support of the 41% of Labor voters who had picked candidates Herzog, Erel Margalit and Omer Barlev in the first round. Herzog and Margalit announced they were backing former Labor leader Peretz, while ex-Labor leader Shelly Yachimovich sided with Gabbay.
Peretz, a former defense minister who led the party as a junior coalition party under Kadima over a decade ago, had campaigned vigorously for the post since December.
Gabbay, however, was 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 be attested to with 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.
The 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, followed 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 he cannot be the 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, a major Israeli telecoms company.
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 other center and left-wing parties to forge a bloc to oust Prime Minister Benjamin 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 Prime Minister Benjamin 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 the polls.
AFP and Marissa Newman contributed to this report.