Exodus Continues as Former Netanyahu Loyalist Resigns, Joins Rival Sa'ar

Ze’ev Elkin, who served in a range of posts including as Netanyahu’s coalition head, blasts ‘cult of personality’ ■ Naftali Bennett announces he will run for prime minister, criticizes PM's handling of coronavirus crisis

Chaim Levinson
Chaim Levinson
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Sa'ar (center) and Elkin (far right) at a Likud campaign event in 2019.
Sa'ar (center) and Elkin (far right) at a Likud campaign event in 2019.Credit: Moti Milrod
Chaim Levinson
Chaim Levinson

Minister of Higher Education Ze'ev Elkin announced Wednesday evening that he is resigning from the government and Likud, slamming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's "cult of personality," and joining Gideon Sa'ar's New Hope party.

In his resignation letter to Netanyahu, Elkin wrote, "I can no longer call on the citizens of Israel to vote for you and trust that you will work for them." Elkin added, "the citizens of Israel cannot be held hostage to your personal interests."

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Elkin wrote, "Sadly, in the last two years, and especially over the last period, more and more I feel your personal agenda and the whims of your inner circle taking an increasingly central role in making decisions, which are often critical for the State of Israel and its citizens. As someone who has watched this dangerous process up close, I am increasingly worried, and my belief in you and the honesty of your intentions has waned more and more."

Elkin said that soon before the Knesset dissolved in December of 2019, he urged Netanyahu to prevent an election, but that the prime minister refused to give up on his pursuit of immunity from prosecution. “That’s when the rift was formed,” Elkin wrote. Recently, he said, “[t]his rift turned into a true schism.” According to Elkin, Netanyahu could have “stopped the train barreling into the abyss of a fourth election in two years, at the height of one of the most severe health and economic crises Israel has ever known,” but that “personal considerations again overpowered national ones.”

“As a member of the government you head, I bear collective responsibility for the government’s deeds and yours, and I cannot continue to bear this responsibility,” Elkin added. “I cannot lie to myself and call on the country’s citizens to entrust their fate to someone in whom I have stopped believing and trusting.” Therefore, Elkin said, he had decided to quit the cabinet and Likud and join Sa’ar’s new party, which will be “free of the atmosphere of a cult of personality, fawning, and a Byzantine court.”

The veteran Likud lawmaker officialy resigned from the party on Thursday, issuing a statement saying: "Today I sadly return the mandate to the Likud and resign from the Knesset. My positions and beliefs have all remained the same. My mission, as well as New Hope's, is to gain public trust and return here as a representative of a new and great national movement that brings hope, change and unity."

Elkin defected from the Likud once before, running for the Knesset in 2006 with Tzipi Livni's Kadima party. In 2008, he returned to the Likud, and since then has served as party chairman, party whip, deputy foreign minister, and has also held a various cabinet positions.

Also on Wednesday, head of the Yamina party, Naftali Bennett, announced that he will run for prime minister in the upcoming election. "I will invite any party that is in favor of a Jewish and democratic nation into the coalition," Bennett said in a press conference. Bennett criticized Netanyahu's handling of the coronavirus crisis, saying, "when we needed him more than anything he simply wasn't there."

Good riddance and good luck

The Likud issued a statement in response to news of Elkin's departure from Likud saying that Elkin had "skipped" from Kadima to Likud and from Likud over to Sa'ar's new party "only" because he had failed to make it to one of the top ten slots on Likud's slate and had not gotten the job he wanted.

They characterized Sa'ar's party as a "refugee and defector camp that has failed in the democratic elections within the Likud and cannot be elected," adding that "despite a series of lies, Elkin also knows that Gideon has no government without Lapid and the left."

Opposition leader Yair Lapid, chairman of Yesh Atid, wrote on Twitter: “I advise each Israeli citizen to listen to Zeev Elkin’s sharp words about Netanyahu’s conduct. The State of Israel can no longer afford such a failure of government. I wish Zeev Elkin good luck on his new path.”

In a statement, Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan party said it had played an important role in protecting democracy as part of the now-collapsed coalition, and criticized the goals of Sa’ar’s new party. “If there were no trial, there would be a budget – and without Kahol Lavan in the government, there wouldn’t be a trial,” said the party. “Kahol Lavan defended democracy in the government, and will also continue to do so in the future in the face of anti-liberal parties that aim to damage the court, and which will lead to a binational state and the closure of supermarkets on Shabbat – just like the party Elkin has joined.”

Very New Hope

Gideon Sa’ar quit Likud and established New Hope roughly two weeks ago. In his resignation speech, he said he could "no longer support a government led by Netanyahu or be a member of his party" and announced his intention to run for the premiership against Benjamin Netanyahu.

In an interview on Channel 13 that same week, he pledged that he would not join a government led by Netanyahu, saying "Whoever wants Netanyahu to continue to be prime minister should not vote for me because I will under no circumstances support him." He added that "If Netanyahu becomes the next prime minister, I will sit in the opposition."

To date, several lawmakers have defected from their respective parties and joined New Hope: Sharren Haskel, Yifat Shasha-Biton and Michal Shir Segman of Likud, and Yoaz Hendel and Zvi Hauser of Derech Eretz. In the previous election, Hendel and Hauser ran on Benny Gantz's Kahol Lavan slate and broke with him after Gantz decided to form a unity government with Netanyahu following the March 2 election.

Polls conducted over the past two weeks have given New Hope between 15 and 21 seats.

New Hope's aims include: "encouraging settlement" in the West Bank; "protecting [Israel's] values as the nation-state of the Jewish people, which maintains human rights"; and promoting reforms in all state authorities, including law enforcement, judiciary and form of government."

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