By Andrew Friedman/TPS
Labor Party newcomer Avi Gabbay was elected party chairman Monday, beating party veteran Amir Peretz 16,080 to 14,734.
Outgoing party chairman Yitzchak Herzog, who ran for re-election before supporting Amir Peretz in the run-off, spoke to Gabbay following the announcement, congratulating his successor and pledging to help unify the party in order to defeat Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at the next general election, scheduled to be held by November 2019.
“I just spoke to Avi Gabbay and congratulated him on his impressive primary victory for the chairmanship of the Labor Party. I told him I would stand by him to help in any way I can to strengthen the party and to replace the current government. I wish him good luck,” Herzog said.
“Labor members have said their word and I respect their choice,” Peretz said on social media following his defeat. “My colleagues and I will stand firmly by Avi Gabbay’s side and help him bring Labor back into power. That is the most important mission facing us and facing Israeli society,” Peretz said.
The election brought to a close a fraught race between two candidates representing different visions for the party as well as a clear disdain for one-another. Peretz, a career labor leader who served as party chairman a decade ago, had campaigned on an aggressive left-wing economic and social platform and was expected to break apart the party’s Zionist Union alliance with Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah Party.
But his first stint as party chairman was unsuccessful – he was criticized for choosing to serve as defense minister under Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, instead of choosing a “social” ministry such as housing or economy, and was ultimately forced to resign as defense minister following the Second Lebanon War in the summer of 2006.
In contrast, Gabbay’s election appear’s to signal a new era for the party, although it is unclear what that future will hold. A former head of the Bezeq telecommunications conglomerate, Gabbay helped found the Kulanu Party with former Likud MK Moshe Kahlon and later served as minister of the environment under Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu until resigning in May 2016 over the appointment of Avigdor Liberman as defense minister.
In practical terms, that likely means that Gabbay will be open to leading Labor into a coalition arrangement with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, either in the foreseeable future or following the next general election.
Peretz Chairwoman Zahava Galon also congratulated Gabbay, calling him “impressive” and offering to collaborate with him to replace the current Likud government.
“The Israeli public deserves a ‘biting, critical’ opposition, the way an opposition should be,” Galon said in a statement. “Gabbay doesn’t seem to be a person who is afraid of challenges.”
About 200 party activists braved a humid Tel Aviv evening to attend the party’s election night reception, held at a small wedding hall at the Tel Aviv Exhibition Grounds. Within seconds of the result, however, the hall emptied of Peretz supporters leaving only a dedicated core of Gabbay loyalists to wait for the winner to deliver his victory speech. By 10 pm, there were more journalists and film crews than party activists, although more than 200 had returned by the time the winner emerged at 10:45.
Supporters of both candidates described the result as a “revolution” for the party.
“[This result] means there is no place left for me inside this party,” said one Amir Peretz supporter who asked to remain anonymous because he is considering running for a spot on a center-left Knesset slate in 2019. “I’ve been a member of the Labor Party for 30 years, but I can’t support Avi Gabbay. He’s a thug and an opportunist, and has nothing in common with the values of this party,” the man said.