Explained: Meet the Two Men Who Want to Lead Israel’s Labor Party Back to Power

Amir Peretz has already led the party but has jumped ship twice, while Avi Gabbay has built up a résumé as a big-time CEO

Avi Gabbay, left, who finished second in first round of July 4 Labor Party primary, and Amir Peretz, who finished first, in Tel Aviv, July 3, 2017.
Moti Milrod

The Labor Party has joined the worldwide trend of buoyant political outsiders by choosing Amir Peretz and Avi Gabbay as the pair to face off in the leadership runoff next week.

To be sure, neither is Donald Trump, who spent much of his campaign bashing the leaders of the party he was running for, or Bernie Sanders, a politician Peretz is reputed to admire deeply. But the fact that they were chosen — and their many competitors were not — reflects a feeling that perhaps Israelis in general have had enough of business as usual. 

It’s notable that both Peretz and Gabbay are of Moroccan descent, representing a desire to finally shake off the party’s (deserved) image as a bastion of the Tel Aviv-area Ashkenazi elite. Ostensibly, the party now has a better chance to appeal to voters in the north and south whose families hail from places like Morocco, Yemen and Iraq. Interestingly, the two men share a line on their résumés — they both did stints as environmental protection minister.

Other than that, the two candidates — one a familiar career politician and the other a success in the business world — couldn’t be more different.  

Labor  Party primary results

Peretz and Labor: Jump around

The choice of 65-year-old Amir Peretz would mark less of a change for Labor, and his success in the first round — first place at 32.7 percent — wasn’t a surprise. Technically, he shouldn’t really be considered an outsider — his roots in the party run deep. But his revolving-door relationship with his political home means that even after decades of involvement the outsider label still applies.

Peretz’s history in the party has its pluses and minuses. He has long-time allies and a consistent message of socioeconomic justice and advocacy for peace with the Palestinians. But he also has critics and enemies — notably the woman who began her Labor career as his protégé but became his bitter rival, Shelly Yacimovich. And it’s questionable whether the party members he has abandoned and then returned to twice will give him a third chance. Finally, it doesn’t help that in Labor’s one national race under Peretz in 2006, the party could do no better than the 19 seats it captured in 2003.

Amir Peretz campaigning in Sderot, southern Israel, July 2, 2017.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Peretz became a Labor Party wunderkind when at 31 was elected mayor of the southern town Sderot, a Likud stronghold; he was elected to the Knesset five years later. He then won the election to head the Histadrut labor federation, which brought the outspoken Laborite with the memorable mustache to national prominence. He was hailed by pundits as a breakthrough figure — a left-wing Mizrahi leader from the country’s outskirts.

But instead of jousting for position in Labor’s ranks, Peretz formed his own party in 1999, One Nation, which over two elections won only a handful of seats. In 2004 he returned to Labor, and the next year he scored an upset victory over Shimon Peres for the party leadership.

But that 19-seat performance in 2006 put Labor 10 seats behind Ehud Olmert’s Kadima in the 120-seat Knesset. Labor joined the government and Peretz became Olmert’s defense minister, where he is credited for facing down skeptics and pushing for the development of the Iron Dome missile defense system — a critical decision considering the rockets that have rained down on Israel from Hezbollah in the north and Hamas and its allies in the south. Peretz saw his political stock rise and some of the political ridicule fall. 

Peretz, however, was defense minister during the 2006 Second Lebanon War, in which 121 Israeli soldiers were killed. Peretz left the defense ministry in 2007 and lost a Labor leadership primary to Ehud Barak, a former prime minister, defense minister and military chief of staff.

Peretz would later jump ship for the second time. In 2012, he ditched Labor for Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah party, which ended up joining Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, making Peretz environmental minister. He didn’t last long in a Netanyahu cabinet, however, resigning over a budget he said would bring children into poverty en masse and accusing the prime minister of running the country “like a monarchy.” But Peretz remained in Hatnuah, which ran with Labor in 2015 as the Zionist Union alliance.

Later that year, in his fourth party switch, Peretz “came home” to Labor with the clear intention of taking another shot at the party leadership.

Gabbay: Israel’s Obama?

Labor leadership candidate Avi Gabbay.
Tomer Appelbaum

Avi Gabbay, 50, is the true newcomer and the surprise of the Labor runoff, beating its current leader, Isaac Herzog, into third place and the media-savvy well-funded Erel Margalit into fourth. Plus Gabbay came reasonably close to Peretz with his 27.1 percent of the vote. The day after the election he received a ringing endorsement from Barak, whom many had believed would jump into the race himself.

Both Peretz and Gabbay hail from Moroccan families, but the differences between the two and their paths to political leadership are significant. Gabbay may come from a working-class Moroccan family with eight children, but he didn’t immigrate from Morocco — as Peretz did as a child. Plus he grew up in the heart of Jerusalem, not in the country’s outskirts.

His is a Cinderella story that speaks well of Israel as a meritocracy. Gabbay followed a path from a prestigious high school to the esteemed Unit 8200, the Israeli version of the U.S. National Security Agency. It was then an economics degree and MBA at Hebrew University, a stint at the Finance Ministry, and ultimately the CEO position at telecommunications giant Bezeq, where he climbed the ranks.

After stepping down from Bezeq, Gabbay pivoted into politics as a founder of the center-right Kulanu party with Moshe Kahlon ahead of the 2015 election; Kahlon would become finance minister. It was a sign of how highly Kahlon valued Gabbay that even though the Bezeq veteran wasn't on the Knesset ticket, he was made environmental protection minister in the Netanyahu government.  

It was then a stinging rebuke to Kahlon when Gabbay left the government — and Kulanu — in May 2016. While Netanyahu’s firing of Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon was officially the trigger, there were cracks in Gabbay’s relationship with the governing coalition. An earlier rift was his opposition to Netanyahu’s policy for Israel’s natural gas industry, when Gabbay voted no, opposing the 17 ministers voting yes and several others — including Kahlon — who abstained.

Then, in a move that surprised many, Gabbay joined Labor, announcing he had signed up thousands of new members to begin building support for the leadership race. When he declared his candidacy, he said his goal was “to transform it from a party with correct principles to a party that wins elections.”

With his corporate background and history in a center-right party, Gabbay isn’t a natural fit for hard-core Laborites or anyone looking for a working-class hero; sure enough, in the election’s first round, he was slammed as a wealthy carpetbagger from the right. Nor has he carved out a clear position on Israel’s most burning issue: peace and security.

But in the age of the Startup Nation, he just might merge a social-justice message with his proven business savvy. Perhaps, Obama-like, the combination of his charisma, ethnic background and educated, soft-spoken style could pull off what the Labor Party is clearly desperate for — a way to appeal to mainstream Israelis and reach beyond the Tel Aviv café set and elderly kibbutz party lifers.

He played to this hope in an interview the morning after his first-round victory, pledging that he would “go to places where they don’t vote Labor and persuade them to vote Labor.” If within the next week he can convince the party rank and file that he can do this, Gabbay will be the true outsider who  comes out ahead.