Former Justice Minister Leaves Tel Aviv Mayor's Sinking Ship at a Crucial Moment

Ron Huldai's party seems to self-destruct in a month's time, due to a few bad decisions and calculations. Might he eke out a couple of Knesset seats just the same, enough to pay back those expensive loans?

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Mayor and Knessetcandidate Huldai visiting a vaccination center in Tel Aviv in December 2020
Mayor and Knesset candidate Huldai visiting a vaccination center in Tel Aviv in December 2020Credit: Hadas Frosh
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

Thirty-one days. That’s all it took for Avi Nissenkorn to transform from a political meteor appearing in the firmament of the Israeli left to a meteor that burned up and shattered into a million pieceson its way down.

The most seasoned politician in Kahol Lavan took a few decisions which turned out to be catastrophic for him (hindsight is always perfect). One of these choices was to leave Gantz; another was to refrain from competing for the leadership role of the Labor party; another was to reject an extremely generous offer by Yair Lapid to be his runner-up in Yesh Atid. He chose to go with Ron Huldai and The Israelis, whose chances of crossing the electoral threshold, or to win a single Knesset seat have turned out to be miniscule.

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For eight months he served as justice minister under a prime minister who views the destruction of the judiciary as his prime goal in life. In those eight months he blocked initiatives and dangerous steps that were meant to help Netanyahu evade his trial. Nissenkorn cleansed the toxic atmosphere created by his predecessor Amir Ohana, a destructive agent planted in that ministry by the prime minister and his son, while restoring the ministry’s defiled dignity. This record won’t hurt when he returns to his law office for a “break”, as he calls it, one which may last a long time.

His decision to retire forthwith from politics was made over the weekend. Apparently, his family had something to do with it. He was asked by “sources’ in the party not to rush and wait another three days, until possible unions were formed, so that the final negotiations could take place from a position of maximal strength. Nissenkorn refused, leaving behind much anger.

Avi Nissenkorn at the Knesset in December 2020Credit: Emil Salman

Nissenkorn abandoned the sinking vessel of The Israelis while its passengers – led by their skipper Ron Huldai – were crowding into lifeboats and waiting for help. Huldai is nearing a moment of decision, when lists need to be submitted to the Central Elections Committee, with no bullets in his gun.

He didn’t foresee the miracle that took place in Merav Michaeli’s camp, as she bounced from victory to victory. First, she ensured that primary elections would be held by the Labor party, then she won the leadership race, then she “fired” her Labor partners Amir Peretz and Itzik Shmuli and celebrated the birth of a new slate on Monday, when primary election to determine the slate of Knesset candidates was held.

Michaeli will have to decide whether to make do with the party's slate, or to add outsiders such as Huldai (if he’s interested), or Ofer Shelah, Lapid's former number 2.

Huldai gave a speech on Sunday in which he literally beat his breast in remorse, pledging to do whatever he could for the sake of the goal for which he had taken the leap: replacing the government and the person who leads it. Again, only 31 days transpired since the evening on which he had declared, on prime time television, his intent to run for national office, offering himself as an alternative to Benjamin Netanyahu, until issuing what appeared to be a concession speech on Sunday night.

The rapid collapse of The Israelis has more than one explanation. A key factor is apparently its chairman’s decision not to leave his post as mayor of Tel Aviv. The question now is whether by Thursday we’ll see him return to that office which he never left, or whether he stays in the national arena as part of some other party.

The prevailing opinion among those close to him is that Huldai will try to preserve The Israelis, with or without him, for financial reasons. He took out a substantial amount in loans to finance his election campaign. If he manages to get just two party members into the Knesset, their funding allocations (1.4 million shekels, or $430,000, per lawmaker) will greatly help to repay those loans.

On the right side of the political map, Naftali Bennett is trouncing Netanyahu in polling for the second time in a row. After bringing the “I am Shulman party” of the self-employed into Yamina, under Netanyahu’s nose and despite his efforts to bring them into Likud, he did it again, this time with Alon Davidi, the mayor of Sderot. Davidi is very well liked by the national religious camp, and Netanyahu had his eye on him too. Last week, the prime minister made a special trip to Sderot to honor the mayor, and a few days ago he invited Davidi to Balfour Street, as part of his efforts to try and persuade him to join the Likud slate (after the deal with Bennett had already been completed).

Several symbols of the right prefer Netanyahu’s rivals. Davidi is going with Yamina; former New York consul Danny Dayan chose to go with Sa’ar and his New Hope party. The Likud chairman may be able to seek a measure of consolation in wooing Orly Levy-Abekasis, the princess of opportunism of Israeli politics who’s emblematic of everything that’s wrong with it. She has an assured spot on the Likud slate, in order to sow confidence in other defectors who Netanyahu hopes to snap up after the election. Who says he doesn’t respect signed agreements, even when these deals are kept under wraps.

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