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Who is Avi Gabbay, the new head of Israel's opposition Labor party?

Ex-businessman Avi Gabbay, won the leadership of Israel's Labour party at electipn runoffs beating longtime politician and former party leader Amir Peretz
JACK GUEZ (AFP)
The new party leader surprised many by joining the Labor party months after quitting Netanyahu's government

A political outsider and millionaire businessman, Avi Gabbay, won Monday's runoff primary to head Israel's opposition Labor party and his supporters hope he will galvanize the flagging prospects of the left.

Gabbay beat MK and former party leader Amir Peretz with 52 percent of the vote.

Growing up in an immigrant transit camp, Gabbay rose up the ranks to take the helm of Israel's biggest telecommunications firm. At Bezeq, the telecom utility, Gabbay earned about $14.1 million (50 million shekels), reports Haaretz.

Gabbay wanted to return to public service, a close associate told Haaretz, but lucrative earning opportunities in the private sector kept him entertained. Prior to serving as environment minister in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing coalition, Gabay tried but ultimately failed to buy control of Israeli airline El Al.

The new party leader surprised many by joining Labor months after quitting Netanyahu's government.

As Labor head, Gabbay now talks about dividing east Jerusalem in peace negotiations. But during Netanyahu's coalition, he had no problem being part of a coalition expanding settlements and opposing the peace process. The seeming turnaround did not seem to intimidate left-wing Labor voters who yearn to regain power.

The soft-spoken 50-year-old grew up as the seventh of eight children to a poor family that emigrated from Morocco to south Jerusalem. 

During his army service, Gabbay served in a prestigious intelligence unit and rose through the ranks to be a major before leaving the army.

He later studied economics and business at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, AFP reports, and got an MBA. Gabbay currently resides in Tel Aviv with his wife, a teaching coordinator, and three children.

Gabbay began his career working for the finance ministry's budget department, before entering the private sector and working for Bezeq, rising up to be CEO.

One Haaretz columnist describes Gabbay's public-to-private sector transition in more critical terms. "He crossed the lines from the Finance Ministry’s budget department for a job at telecommunications monopoly Bezeq, and later fired workers while pocketing tens of millions of shekels for himself."

In 2014, Gabbay joined former Likud minister, Moshe Kahlon, in founding Kulanu, a centrist, economic-focused party. Kulanu won 10 seats out of 120 in the 2015 elections, and Gabbay joined Netanyahu's cabinet in the governing coalition.

Yet Gabbay bucked other politicians in the Kulanu party by opposing a controversial major offshore gas deal, which he said did not serve the interests of the Israeli public.

The now-Labor leader then resigned as minister in 2016 to protest the appointment of hawkish Avigdor Liberman as defense minister.

Yet Gabbay made no public objections to how before the 2015 elections, his Kulanu party and Liberman's Yisrael Beiteinu party had a surplus-vote agreement to gain more parliamentary seats.

At the time, Gabbay left Kulanu and joined Labor, saying that the party was a natural choice since it served as "a true alternative to the government," as reported by AFP.

In terms of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Gabbay has been far from outspoken on the issue. His past remarks express support for a demilitarized Palestinian state alongside Israel, with land swaps for the settlement blocs.

And on Gabbay's website, he emphasizes the importance of developing the Palestinian economy.

"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 entrepreneurial background and centrist politics, along with his Moroccan heritage, may have appealed to Labor voters who seek to regain power after sixteen years of not leading the government.

It remains to be seen if Gabbay can replace Netanyahu with a center-left bloc. 

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