Is­rael’s op­po­si­tion La­bor seeks re­newal with lead­er­ship vote

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

JERUSALEM: Is­rael’s main op­po­si­tion La­bor party voted for a new leader yes­ter­day 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 La­bor only months ago. Some 52,000 party mem­bers are el­i­gi­ble to vote in the runoff, with polls open from 11 am to 9 pm.

The elec­tion is ex­pected to be close. 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 La­bor 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 La­bor’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 La­bor. The coun­try’s last La­bor prime min­is­ter was Ehud Barak from 1999 to 2001. Ahead of the 2015 elec­tions, La­bor 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 La­bor’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 La­bor 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.

Mir­ror im­age

Peretz, 65 and with a trade­mark saltand-pep­per mous­tache, is a vet­eran politi­cian, for­mer trade union leader and exde­fense min­is­ter. He was pre­vi­ously head of La­bor 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 de­fense 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 de­fense 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 re-launch 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 de­fense 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 La­bor party. Barak, the ex-prime min­is­ter, has an­nounced his sup­port for Gab­bay in the runoff. Af­ter polls opened yes­ter­day, 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.”—AFP

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