Avi Gabbay chosen as Israeli Labour party's surprise new leader

The Israeli Labour party has turned to a relative unknown to restore its political fortunes


Six months after  first joining the Israeli Labour party, Avi Gabbay was elected last night its new leader, winning 52 per cent of members’ votes in the second round.

Mr Gabbay, who until he came second last week in the first round was little known to the wider Israeli public, beat Amir Peretz, a former party leader and Defence Minister, who won the first round and was supported by much of the Labour establishment and trade unions.

A newcomer not only to Labour, Mr Gabbay has been in politics only since 2014, when he helped Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon found his centre-right Kulanu Party. He served for a year as environment minister in Benjamin Netanyahu's government, resigning in May 2016 over the appointment of Avigdor Lieberman as defence minister. 

Mr Gabbay is not a member of the Knesset and is therefore in the rather unique position of leader of the second-largest party in Israel but cannot serve as the official leader of the opposition.

He has offered Isaac Herzog, the former Labour leader who came third in the first round last week to remain in his Knesset position. 

Labour members gambled on a virtually unknown figure to breathe life back in to the party which founded the state of Israel, but has not won an election since 1999. Mr Gabbay 50 and born in Jerusalem, is from a family of Likud-voting immigrants from Morocco. He served as an intelligence officer in the IDF and worked for five years in the Finance Ministry’s budget department, regarded as "the elite unit of the civil service".

He then spent fourteen years in the largest telecom company in Israel, Bezek, becoming its CEO at the age of 40. 

While his rival Mr Peretz was supported in the second round by Mr Herzog, as well as the party’s former secretary-general and boss of the Histadrut trade union federation, Mr Gabbay also had influential backers in former party leaders Ehud Barak and Shelly Yachimovich.

Nevertheless, his surprising achievement is seen as a victory over the party establishment and a win for Labour’s centrist wing over the much more leftist option of Mr Peretz. The new leader will need his centrist credentials if he is to have any chance of restoring the party's fortunes.

Mr Herzog led the party to a  relatively strong showing in the 2015 election, winning together with Tzipi Livni's Hatnuah party 24 seats for the Zionist Union bloc. In the last two years, however, the party has plummeted in the polls to the fourth place, losing half its voters to the centrist Yesh Atid party led by Yair Lapid.

To win the next election, Labour under Mr Gabbay must convince these voters to return to the fold as well as prising away an additional chunk of voters from Kulanu and Mr Netanyahu's Likud. No Labour leader has come anywhere close to doing so since Mr Barak won in 1999. 

In his victory speech in Tel Aviv on Monday night, Mr Gabbay announced "tomorrow we are beginning the campaign the changing government in Israel". He warned his supporters "a difficult campaign awaits” and attacked Mr Netanyahu's government of "dividing between right and left, between religious and secular, between Ashkenazim and Sephardim, between Jews and Arabs. Dividing us to keep on ruling".

He took aim at the settlers saying Israel "needs a government that will take care of Dimona, not only of (the settler outpost) Amona".

Labour is a merciless party. Since the last time Israel had a Labour prime minister sixteen years ago, the leadership has changed hands eight times. Mr Gabbay has little time to take control of the party as he begins introducing himself to the Israeli electorate and starts to take on his main rivals - Lapid, Kahlon and Netanyahu.

Elections are not to take place for another two years, though Mr Netanyahu's legal issues or coalition problems are likely to bring them forward. What he lacks in political experience, he hopes to make up with in freshness and a public desire for change after Mr Netanyahu's total of eleven years in office. 

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive