An Impressive Defection From Netanyahu’s Party, but Not Yet a Game Changer

Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht
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Zeev Elkin, right, and Benjamin Netanyahu during a debate on whether to dissolve the Knesset, 2012.
Zeev Elkin, right, and Benjamin Netanyahu during a debate on whether to dissolve the Knesset, 2012.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht

Zeev Elkin, the latest Likud defector, is a great acquisition by Gideon Sa’ar. He’s many times higher in stature than the people who preceded him into Sa’ar’s new party. He can’t be mentioned in the same breath as the comedy duo of Yoaz Hendel and Zvi Hauser, or with Yifat Shasha-Biton, who’s currently more of a trend than a proven entity.

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Elkin is the kind of player every soccer coach wants: a crafty midfielder who plans a few steps ahead and sends the ball where it needs to go. That’s talent!

On a symbolic level, the fact that someone who was seen as so close to Benjamin Netanyahu now openly says the things Netanyahu’s opponents are saying is a jolting event. Elkin, yes, the Elkin who sewed up governments and agreements at his master’s command is the one talking about the family’s influence.

He has mentioned “the pressure from the people close to you,” and Netanyahu’s incessant preoccupation with his corruption trial: “You decided otherwise, hoping vainly for immunity” – for example, via a law that would grant a sitting prime minister immunity from prosecution.

Elkin has talked about Netanyahu’s credibility problems – “you make the same promise again and again to people, expecting them to forget that you bluffed them in the past.” And he has talked about the rule by fear in Likud – “you destroyed the Likud movement and ushered in an atmosphere of personality cult and sycophancy.”

It’s amusing that Elkin chose to compare Naftali Bennett to a battered woman Netanyahu expects to return after another round of humiliation. I've heard this metaphor from right-wing leaders about Elkin as well – how, despite his abilities, and mainly despite his loyal services, Netanyahu was playing with him and Likud’s Yariv Levin, sometimes bringing one closer and casting the other away, or vice versa.

True, a lot of murky water has collected in recent years between Netanyahu and the minister who was in charge of it, and everyone in deep Likud knows that Elkin was always suspect there after starting out his political career in the centrist Kadima party. And in recent years he was close to Sa’ar. But he was a vital cog in the Byzantine court he spoke about in his speech, so his departure from Likud – even out of frustration – is dramatic.

Hard as the blow to Netanyahu may be, the big question is whether Elkin’s exit will generate what Likudniks call “a breach in the right wing.” Today Sa’ar’s enterprise derives its strength mainly from the collapse of the wide stretch between Likud and the Joint List of Arab parties, and from people who once called themselves leftists but today sum up their entire ideology with hatred for Netanyahu and his voters.

Yesterday they supported broken-backed Benny Gantz and Avigdor Lieberman, who doesn’t greet Arab legislators when he sees them. Today they support Sa’ar, who fights against asylum seekers, and Bennett the settlers’ leader. Let’s see what the day after tomorrow brings. (We should check what settlement activist Daniella Weiss is doing these days. She’d be a game changer.)

Loud as they may be, the “Anyone but Bibi” voters are also irrelevant because they haven’t changed. They didn’t want Netanyahu before and they don’t want him now. Even when they join forces for their supreme cause they can’t form a coherent bloc against Netanyahu’s alliance with the ultra-Orthodox.

After the second election, the one held in September last year, Lieberman, Hendel and Hauser all worked against the forming of a government with the Joint List. Elkin has already made a point of the disaster that could have occurred because of Netanyahu’s reckless behavior: “You took us all to a third election – an election where the left almost rose to power with the votes of the Arab Joint List.”

That right-wing breach that Likud so fears is taking from the party two to three Knesset seats; people who voted for Likud in the last three elections despite the trial and all it entails. These two or three seats – quite an achievement at the ballot box – will be able to launch a reshuffle on the right.

Elkin hasn’t proved that he can bring in voters – as the results of the Jerusalem mayoral election show; Elkin lost that contest to Moshe Leon. Maybe Elkin’s defection is a milestone in the process of Bibi-ism’s crumbling in Likud, but for now this event has only symbolic importance.

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