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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 June 2018

Will the surprise winner of Israel's Labour party leadership contest bring new hope for the Palestinians?

Avi Gabbay has promised to restart peace talks and give back parts of East Jerusalem to the Palestinians

Avi Gabbay speaks to supporters in Tel Aviv following his victory in the Labour party leadership contest on July 10, 2017. Tsafrir Abayov / AP
Avi Gabbay speaks to supporters in Tel Aviv following his victory in the Labour party leadership contest on July 10, 2017. Tsafrir Abayov / AP

When Avi Gabbay joined the Israeli Labour party six months ago, few people had ever heard of him. But last week he stunned Israelis by winning the Labour leadership contest. Now, his victory is inspiring home among many Jews and Palestinians that he can become prime minister and usher in a better era for the region.

"There is no doubt the election of Gabbay gave some hope for many people that there is a chance to change this government and this is good news for all the citizens of Israel and Arabs might get benefit out of it," said Aida Touma-Sliman, an Arab member of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, from the left-wing Hadash party.

If Mr Gabbay becomes prime minister, it would probably mean a significant change in Israel's approach to the Palestinians. He has promised to restart peace talks and make measured concessions, such as giving control of Arab neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem to the Palestinians. He also says he will cut off funding for isolated settlements in the West Bank, while striving to retain major settlement blocs as part of a peace deal, in exchange for giving Palestinians some territory that is now part of Israel. But he has also vowed that Israel will keep control of the West Bank's Jordan River valley, saying it is necessary for security. That is incompatible with the Palestinian demand for independence in all of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict "is solvable", Mr Gabbay wrote on his website. "To advance a solution to it, courageous and determined leadership is necessary, leadership that doesn't involve itself in spins, incitement and sowing divisions between sectors of the nation but rather cares about the state."

Mr Gabbay, 50, was formerly a minister of environmental protection for the right-wing Kulanu party in prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition before shifting gears. In May last year, he resigned from the cabinet when far-right leader Avigdor Lieberman was appointed defence minister.

"I respected that he quit the government. Lieberman was a red line for him, which is good," said Ms Touma-Sliman. But some Arab leaders are less sanguine about Labour's new head and doubt he has what it takes to reverse discrimination against the Arab minority and forge a just settlement of the conflict with the Palestinians.

"In the end, he's mainstream Labour party. There is a party platform and he will act according to it," said Mtanes Shehadeh, secretary-general of the Arab nationalist Balad party. "It might be that on the issue of the occupation, he will act in a less extremist way than Netanyahu, but this does not substantially alter the reality."

Mr Gabbay's parents emigrated to Israel from Morocco, which might appeal to Sephardic Jews of Middle Eastern background who often favour Mr Netanyahu's Likud party. He did his military service as a lieutenant in the intelligence corps. In 1999, he joined the Israeli telecom giant Bezeq, rising rapidly to become chief executive in 2007.

Veteran Israeli political analyst Leslie Susser described Mr Gabbay as "extremely intelligent, quick to understand problems, very solution-oriented. He was a very successful executive at Bezeq and the fact that he was able to come in and win the Labour party shows he has organisational skills".

Right-wing detractors say his messages are vague and that Mr Netanyahu dwarfs him in terms of experience.

Read more: What Netanyahu's landslide victory means for Palestinians

"He wants to be the man for all seasons who looks at social issues from the left and is OK with the centre-right as well," said Zalman Shoval, a former Likud member of the Knesset. "So he avoids 'annoying' statements on the territories. He came into politics from nowhere. The moment will come when he will have to give an answer on where he stands."

"Netanyahu, in our relations with the world and the Palestinians, is the most capable and experienced person. Gabbay is out of the realm in these issues. It doesn't mean he can't learn, but Netanyahu has more experience than anyone in the Israeli political scene right now."

Whoever is right, Mr Gabbay's victory has created a buzz and inspired hope among the moribund left — which has never recovered from Yitzhak Rabin's assassination in 1995 — and also in the Palestinian Authority, whose president, Mahmoud Abbas, called Mr Gabbay to congratulate him.

Since his victory, Labour has shot up in the opinion polls. Past surveys by Channel Ten television showed the party taking 12 seats if there were an election, whereas its most recent survey — which followed Mr Gabbay's win on Monday last week — suggests Labour would take 24. That would put it only five seats behind Likud's projected 29.

But Mr Gabbay still lags far behind Mr Netanyahu when it comes to who voters consider most qualified to be prime minister. In the most recent Channel Ten poll, 37 per cent said Mr Netanyahu was most qualified for the job, with Mr Gabbay coming in second with 14 per cent, followed by other party leaders such as Mr Lieberman and Yesh Atid chief Yair Lapid.

Still, Leslie Susser, the former political editor of the Jerusalem Report magazine, believes Mr Gabbay has a chance at the job, especially if Mr Netanyahu is forced out by corruption scandals. Only this week, Israeli state comptroller Yosef Shapira found that as communications minister from 2015 till May this year, Mr Netanyahu acted improperly by making decisions that affected Bezeq while failing to disclose that the company's then chief executive, Shaul Elovitz, was a close friend. Mr Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing

Zuheir Bahloul, an Arab Knesset member from the Labour party, predicts Mr Gabbay will dramatically shift policy towards the Palestinians if elected. "I spoke to him about the need to meet Abbas, restore diplomatic sanity and proceed by means of dialogue with the Palestinian side. I found in him a responsive listener. He is very serious about these issues. People are trying to depict him as a rightist but he is not a rightist."

"Everyone has a past but the most important thing is how he deals with the present and the future," he added. "If he takes courage and will be the man that I feel he is, than we are heading to a new era."