JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel's Labor elected political newcomer Avi Gabbay as its leader Monday, hoping to inject new blood into the party that steered the Jewish state in the decades after independence but has been shut out of power for 16 years.
Labor led Israel for decades through wars, crises and the pursuit of peace, but has not governed since then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak was defeated in 2001 following a failed attempt to reach peace with the Palestinians.
Gabbay, 50, defeated Amir Peretz, a former party leader and defense minister, by a small margin in a runoff vote Monday.
Gabbay is relatively unknown in Israeli politics. He served a brief stint as environment minister under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing coalition. He then resigned in protest last year and joined Labor when Netanyahu ousted Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon in favor of nationalist Avigdor Lieberman.
A former telecom executive, Gabbay stresses his humble beginnings as the seventh of eight children born to immigrants from Morocco.
Labor still has a long way to go before returning to its former glory as the party of David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin.
Labor's early leaders of European, or Ashkenazi, descent took a paternalistic attitude toward Jewish immigrants from Arabic-speaking countries in the Middle East and North Africa. Many of these immigrants, known as Mizrahi Jews, were sent to shantytown transit camps and largely sidelined.
They found their political savior in the Likud Party's Menachem Begin, who cultivated an outsiders' alliance that appealed to their sense of deprivation. With massive backing from Mizrahi Jews, he swept to power in 1977. In many ways, Labor has been fighting back ever since, rarely wresting control from Likud.
The past 16 years have been a downward spiral as the public has grown disillusioned with Labor's message of Middle East peace amid Palestinian violence and regional upheaval.
Though the next national election is scheduled for late 2019, polls show Labor currently winning just 10 to 15 seats in the 120-seat parliament - making it Israel's fourth or even fifth-largest party.
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