Israel’s Labour Hopes Fresh Face Can Topple Netanyahu

Israel’s main opposition Labour party has taken a risk in electing as its new leader an ex-businessman who only joined months ago, hoping a fresh approach can topple Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Avi Gabbay, a 50-year-old 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 but which has waned in influence in recent years.

He grew up in Jerusalem in a working class family that had emigrated from Morocco and has a reputation of having pulled himself up by his own bootstraps to succeed.

He has never been a member of Israel’s Knesset, or parliament, and only joined Labour in December before mounting what was once seen as a longshot bid to become its leader.

Some have compared his meteoric rise to that of French President Emmanuel Macron.

Gabbay has repeatedly talked of injecting new life into Labour, perceived by many as having grown stagnant, with repeated opinion polls showing it losing support to centrist and right-wing parties.

On Tuesday morning, a day after winning the election, the married father of three who has run marathons took a bicycle ride around his neighbourhood in Tel Aviv.

“This is a morning of new hope,” he told journalists outside his home after defeating longtime politician Amir Peretz with 52 percent of the vote.

“Our task now is to embark on a journey that will fulfil these hopes for Israeli citizens.”

But Gabbay faces a difficult task to win back voters at a time when Israeli politics has undergone a shift to the right, with Netanyahu’s Likud in power since 2009.

Attitudes among Israelis have hardened toward the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, initially pushed forward by Labour.

In the last general elections in 2015, Labour allied with ex-foreign minister Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua to form the Zionist Union, gaining 24 seats in the 120-seat Knesset to become the largest opposition force.

Since then opinion polls have shown a decline in support and Labour’s outgoing head Isaac Herzog was unable to generate fresh enthusiasm for the party of iconic statesmen such as Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres.

“You can have two interpretations for this,” Gideon Rahat, a Hebrew University political scientist and senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute think-tank, told AFP of Gabbay’s election.

One is “desperation,” he said, while the other is Labour adapting to an era of “personalised politics” where personalities can be more important than policies.

Some analysts believe Labour will see a rise in the polls in the short-term due to the excitement surrounding Gabbay’s win, but question whether he can sustain it.

They point to his background as a Mizrahi — Jews of Middle Eastern or North African origin — as a key asset.

Labour has been viewed as a party of elites run by the Ashkenazi — Jews of European origin traditionally seen as the establishment in Israel.

Gabbay’s service in a prestigious military intelligence unit and his stint as head of telecommunications firm Bezeq have also played in his favour.

He helped found the centre-right Kulanu party in 2014, which won 10 seats in the 2015 election.

Gabbay joined Netanyahu’s coalition and was appointed environment minister despite not being a member of parliament.

“A new face, a very eloquent and determined person, very intelligent, not previously a Labour member, but someone who symbolises hope,” said political scientist Avraham Diskin.

But much remain unknown about his policies.

Rahat said one area he should focus on is cost-of-living issues, including housing, a major concern for many Israelis.

Gabbay has taken centrist positions on the Israeli-Palestinian-conflict, favouring a two-state solution but with a demilitarised Palestinian state.

Israel’s next elections are due by 2019, giving Gabbay time to build support if Netanyahu’s current coalition, seen as the most right-wing in the country’s history, lasts until then.

Politicians are also keeping a close eye on whether an ongoing corruption investigation will ensnare Netanyahu and lead to a shake-up.

“This is a time of changes; it is evident all over the world and Israel is also part of the trend,” columnist Sima Kadmon wrote in Israel’s Yediot Aharonot newspaper.

“But it is not just that. For too many years the Labour Party has been a dead party. Gabbay┬┤s election was its way of choosing life.”

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