Ex-defense chief Ya’alon says he will head new party in elections

Former Likud member ousted from ministerial position by Netanyahu announces bid to replace prime minister, though polls showing him unlikely to even make it into the Knesset

Moshe Ya'alon (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Moshe Ya'alon (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon announced on Saturday he would run in the next Knesset elections as the leader of a new political party, confirming widespread speculation of a political comeback from the onetime Likud apparatchik.

Amid rampant rumors of early elections being called as early as Sunday, Ya’alon said he was kicking off his campaign to replace Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, under whom he had served as defense chief.

“I am ready to lead,” the former IDF chief of staff told Channel 10 news Saturday night. “I am criss-crossing the country and building up a political base.”

Ya’alon was ousted as defense minister in May 2016 by  Netanyahu, and shortly afterward quit the ruling Likud party and the Israeli parliament. He has since frequently criticized Netanyahu and indicated he would return to run against him, but Saturday marked the first confirmation he would form a new party.

Launching a public fundraising campaign, Ya’alon wrote on Twitter that he would “very soon” present the party name and its list of candidates.

“You know me, you trusted me for many years in the forefront of the security and diplomatic fronts, from soldier to chief of staff, always leading the forces,” he wrote.

“Trust me to lead the country in an honest, clean-handed, determined and responsible way, a leadership that acts for the benefit of the country and not for personal interests. A leadership you can count on,” he added.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a Likud faction meeting at the Knesset on February 26, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“I need you now at my side. I don’t have tycoons for friends. I don’t have my own newspaper. I don’t have my own TV channel. I have you. Your support is very important, because only together will we manage to bring an alternative leadership to Israel.”

In most polls in which a hypothetical new party headed by Ya’alon was cited as an option, the party did not pass the minimum threshold needed to enter the Knesset, which currently stands at four Knesset seats. However, Ya’alon is hoping to become a lighting rod around which disaffected Likud moderates can rally.

One of the first contributors to his crowdsourcing campaign was Menny Naftali, an ex-caretaker at the prime minister’s official residence who sued Netanyahu and his wife Sara for mistreatment and has been leading anti-corruption protests against him.

During his time as defense minister, Ya’alon was seen as a defense hawk, but also showed streaks as a more reserved political figure. He was famously forced to apologize to US secretary of state John Kerry for accusing him of a “messianic” drive to push Israel and the Palestinians into peace talks concessions. He supported settlement building, but also led a campaign cracking down on extreme right-wing activists in the West Bank.

In 2017, a state comptroller report found Ya’alon, Netanyahu and IDF chief Benny Gantz were at fault for failing to prepare adequately for the threat of attack tunnels ahead of the 2014 war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip

Ya’alon told Channel 10 he left Likud for various reasons, including what he described as the “change” the party has undergone in recent years.

“Post-2015 Likud is different from the 2009 Likud,” he said during the interview, apparently referring to what many see as a rightward shift by the party, which has jettisoned several moderate voices.

He also highlighted the graft probes centered around Netanyahu, saying his new political party would be made up only of honest, clean candidates and would try to rid the political system of corruption.

He said the current coalition crisis wasn’t really about a law bill proposing to exempt ultra-Orthodox conscription to the military, but actually about the “political survival of the prime minister.”

The fundraising campaign has set a goal of NIS 500,000 ($145,000) in the next 50 days.

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