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In Israel Avi Gabbay elected head of Labour party

Israel's main opposition Labour party voted in former businessman Avi Gabbay as its new leader Monday as it sought to regain waning influence and win back supporters.

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Supporters of Israeli politician Avi Gabbay celebrate after he was elected leader of Israel's main opposition Labour Party in the coastal city of Tel Aviv on July 10, 2017 play

Supporters of Israeli politician Avi Gabbay celebrate after he was elected leader of Israel's main opposition Labour Party in the coastal city of Tel Aviv on July 10, 2017

(AFP)

Israel's main opposition Labour party voted in former businessman Avi Gabbay as its new leader Monday as it sought to regain waning influence and win back supporters.

Gabbay, who only joined the party in December, took 52 percent of the votes in the runoff against longtime politician and former party leader Amir Peretz, Labour said in a statement.

"To anyone who doubted the vitality of Israeli democracy, to anyone who eulogised the Labour party," he said in his victory speech to hundreds of jubilant supporters in Tel Aviv, "this night is their answer."

"This night we celebrate a victory, and after this night, there will be a day of hope for Israel," he said.

"Tomorrow, on Tuesday, the journey toward the election to change the Israeli government begins," he said.

Nearly 59 percent of Labour's 52,505 members voted in the contest for leadership of the veteran party, which was seeking a new face to boost its standings in the polls.

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.

That vote saw current Labour 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 Labour's slide in opinion polls.

In a statement following the vote, Herzog -- who had endorsed Peretz ahead of the runoff -- congratulated Gabbay on his "impressive victory" and said he would stand by him "to help strengthen Labour and change the government".

Gabbay, who cannot be opposition head as he is not a member of parliament, asked Herzog to retain the position in his victory speech.

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 benefitted at the expense of Labour.

The country's last Labour prime minister was Ehud Barak from 1999 to 2001.

'Hope and change'

Ahead of the 2015 elections, Labour 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 had hoped their backgrounds would help to widen Labour's support.

Both are of Moroccan descent, rare for a leader of a major party in Israel, and they may be able to increase support for Labour among Mizrahi Jews of Middle Eastern or North African origin.

They also both support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But beyond that they have little in common.

Ex-businessman Avi Gabbay, won the leadership of Israel's Labour party at electipn runoffs beating longtime politician and former party leader Amir Peretz play

Ex-businessman Avi Gabbay, won the leadership of Israel's Labour party at electipn runoffs beating longtime politician and former party leader Amir Peretz

(AFP)

Gabbay, 50, is seen as 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 defence ministry, saying the move was against Israel's security interests and would deepen societal divisions.

Gabbay announced in December that he was joining the Labour party. Barak, the ex-prime minister, has announced his support for Gabbay in the runoff.

After polls opened on Monday, he said on his Facebook page that he would bring "hope and change" while injecting new life into the party.

'Mirror image'

Peretz, 65 with a trademark salt-and-pepper moustache, is a veteran politician, former trade union leader and ex-defence minister.

He was previously head of Labour 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 defence minister during the 34-day war against Lebanon's Hezbollah militia in 2006.

Peretz later saw redemption, however, gaining praise for having pushed for the development of the Iron Dome missile defence system, now seen as an indispensable part of Israel's military infrastructure.

"We will work to heal the society and the divisions caused by Netanyahu," Peretz said on his Facebook page, pledging to act "immediately to relaunch the peace process".

Voters were 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."

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