Israel’s Opposition Labour Seeks Renewal With Leadership Vote

Israel’s main opposition Labour party voted for a new leader Monday as it seeks to regain waning influence and win back supporters who have drifted toward centrist and right-wing candidates.

The runoff election sees two candidates with sharply different political backgrounds: Amir Peretz, a longtime politician and former party leader; and Avi Gabbay, an ex-businessman who joined Labour only months ago.

Some 52,000 party members are eligible to vote in the runoff, with polls open from 11:00 am to 9:00 pm (0800 to 1800 GMT). The election is expected to be close.

By around 6:00 pm, voter turnout had reached some 36 percent, according to a party official. Results were expected to be announced around 9:30 pm.

The candidates advanced to the runoff by beating five others in last week’s first round, with Peretz winning 32.7 percent and Gabbay 27.1 percent.

The vote saw current Labour chairman Isaac Herzog garner only 16.7 percent for a third-place finish, a rapid fall in popularity after leading the party in the last general elections in 2015.

Herzog has faced a barrage of criticism over his attempts to negotiate for his party to join Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition and over Labour’s slide in opinion polls.

Israeli politics has seen a shift rightward in recent years, with Netanyahu and his Likud party in power since 2009.

Centrist parties such as Yesh Atid and Kulanu — which Gabbay was a member of until recently — have also benefited at the expense of Labour.

The country’s last Labour prime minister was Ehud Barak from 1999 to 2001.

Ahead of the 2015 elections, Labour joined forces with Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua to form the Zionist Union, which won 24 seats in the 120-seat parliament to become the largest opposition to Netanyahu’s government.

Supporters of the two candidates in the runoff hope their backgrounds will widen Labour’s support.

Both are of Moroccan descent, rare for a leader of a major party in Israel, and may be able to increase support for Labour among Mizrahi Jews — those of Middle Eastern or North African origin.

They also both support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But beyond that, Peretz and Gabbay have little in common.

Peretz, 65 and with a trademark salt-and-pepper moustache, is a veteran politician, former trade union leader and ex-defence minister.

He was previously head of Labour from 2005-2007 and is the longest serving member of the Knesset, or parliament.

His first stint as leader ended after he was accused of failing in his post as defence minister during the 34-day war against Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia in 2006.

Peretz however later saw redemption, gaining praise for having pushed for the development of the Iron Dome missile defence system, now seen as an indispensable part of Israel’s military infrastructure.

He has received backing from Herzog and other party insiders in the runoff.

“We will work to heal the society and the divisions caused by Netanyahu,” Peretz said on his Facebook page, while also pledging to act “immediately to relaunch the peace process.”

Gabbay, 50, is seen as a fresh face, having formerly headed Israeli telecommunications firm Bezeq before joining politics. He has never been a member of Israel’s parliament.

In 2014, he joined forces with former Likud minister Moshe Kahlon to form centre-right Kulanu.

Kulanu won 10 seats in the 2015 general elections and joined Netanyahu’s coalition, with Gabbay appointed environment minister despite not being a parliament member.

He quit in 2016 in protest at the appointment of hardliner Avigdor Lieberman to head the defence ministry, saying the move was against Israel’s security interests and would deepen societal divisions.

Gabbay announced only in December that he was joining the Labour party. Barak, the ex-prime minister, has announced his support for Gabbay in the runoff.

After polls opened on Monday, he said on his Facebook page that he would bring “hope and change” while injecting new life into the party.

The party’s voters will be faced with a stark choice.

“Amir Peretz’s advantage lies in his rich political experience,” Nahum Barnea wrote in Israel’s Yediot Aharonot newspaper.

“That is also a weakness: Over the course of his many years in politics, Peretz has won himself quite a few enemies. Avi Gabbay is Peretz’s mirror image: new, fresh and inexperienced.”

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