Avi Gabbay, who won Monday’s runoff election to head Israel’s opposition Labour, is a political newcomer with a business background who supporters hope will galvanise his beleaguered party.
He had surprised observers when reaching second place in the first round of the Labour election after joining the party in December, just months after quitting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.
The soft-spoken 50-year-old had humble beginnings as the seventh of eight children born to a family that emigrated from Morocco to a poor neighbourhood in southern Jerusalem.
He joined a prestigious 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.
In 2014, he joined forces with former Likud minister Moshe Kahlon to help form Kulanu, a centre-right party.
Kulanu won 10 seats in the 2015 general elections and joined Netanyahu’s coalition, with Gabbay appointed environment minister.
Gabbay stood out in the party by opposing a controversial major offshore gas deal with a US-led consortium, which he said did not reflect the interests of the Israeli public.
He quit his post as minister 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 left Kulanu and joined Labour a few months later, saying on his website the new party was a natural choice since it was “a true alternative to the government” and committed to the entire Israeli public.
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 demilitarised 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”.
Gabbay’s background in business and centrist politics, as well as his Moroccan background, could be part of his appeal to Labour voters eager to increase its reach after decades of decline in influence.
But critics from within the party questioned the newcomer’s credentials.
It was “pretentious and hard to accept that a person who just yesterday joined the Labour party wants to head it,” former Labour minister and director general Uzi Baram told public radio.
Gabbay was described in an opinion piece in the Yediot Aharonot newspaper as “a cuddly looking man whose innocent and bewildered appearances conceal a sharp and shrewd businessman”.
His potentially wide appeal could also threaten the political competition from left and right, some analysts say.
“The Likud, (Yair Lapid’s centrist) Yesh Atid, Kulanu and (left-wing) Meretz all really really don’t want @GabbayAvi to be elected tomorrow,” Labour lawmaker and Gabbay supporter Shelly Yechimovich wrote on Twitter.
“Not the only reason to vote for him, but a great reason by itself.”
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