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In blow to Gantz, Justice Minister Nissenkorn joins Tel Aviv mayor’s new party

Blue and White minister has resisted pressure by Netanyahu on judicial reforms and senior appointments; Gantz instructs him to resign ministry

Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn seen at the Knesset, October 21, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn seen at the Knesset, October 21, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn announced Tuesday he is joining Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai’s new party, in a major blow to Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s moribund Blue and White party ahead of Knesset elections in March.

A statement from Huldai’s spokesman said Nissenkorn informed Gantz of the move.

“We’ll bring good tidings to hundreds of thousands of Israelis who feel they have no political home and we’ll do this with actions, not words,” Nissenkorn said in the statement.

Gantz spoke with Nissenkorn on Tuesday afternoon and asked him to resign his position as justice minister, Blue and White said in a statement.

“Nissenkorn has chosen a new political home, and therefore it is expected that he resigns from his position,” Gantz said in the statement. “The justice portfolio is among the most important assets Blue and White has to preserve democracy and the rule of law in Israel, and as we have acted so far, we will also do in the future.”

Gantz had been expected to fire the minister over his decision to jump ship.

The announcement from Nissenkorn came hours before Gantz was to give a press conference, in which he was expected to declare he’ll head Blue and White in the March 23 elections despite the party’s plummeting poll numbers and internal grumbling over his leadership.

Huldai was also set to hold an event Tuesday evening to announce the formation of a new center-left party.

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai attends the annual international Municipal Innovation Conference in Tel Aviv, on February 19, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Nissenkorn, a former chief of the Histadrut labor federation, joined Blue and White ahead of the April 2019 elections and become justice minister in May when the new government was sworn in.

Before the Knesset dissolved last week over the failure to pass a state budget, Blue and White and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party reportedly negotiated an agreement to avoid new elections that included reducing Nissenkorn’s powers, a Likud demand. Blue and White denied reaching such a deal.

Netanyahu was said to be primarily interested in preventing Nissenkorn from appointing a state attorney and attorney general — two positions seen as critical to the prime minister, whose criminal trial is slated to resume soon — and new Supreme Court judges of his liking. Nissenkorn also opposes efforts by Netanyahu allies to reform the justice system, appoint more conservative judges and limit the power of the courts more broadly.

Following the announcement, Blue and White officials were quoted by various Hebrew-language media outlets slamming Nissenkorn and saying he had “proved to be a conman.”

“He had not been worthy to receive Gantz’s backing,” the sources were quoted as saying.

“He didn’t even have the courage to leave in a decent manner and resign,” a source said. “Nissenkorn is being ungrateful and behaving like a swindler rather than like a leader. Benny Gantz appointed him and backed him all the way. Everything he did in the Justice Ministry he did thanks to Benny’s power and support rather than his own. And in the end he made a personal calculation and turned his back.”

Offering advice to Nissenkorn’s new party leader, the Blue and White sources added: “Huldai, watch your back.”

Defense Minister Benny Gantz arrives at the Knesset in Jerusalem on December 2, 2020. (Alex Kolomiensky/Pool/AFP)

With the move to Huldai’s party, Nissenkorn joined a growing list of incumbent Blue and White lawmakers who won’t run with the party in the upcoming elections.

Earlier Tuesday, MK Michal Cotler-Wunsh said she won’t run as a candidate for Blue and White in the elections.

On Sunday, Gantz informed MKs Asaf Zamir and Miki Haimovich that they will not be included on the party’s electoral slate due to their decision to vote against extending the budget deadline last week, ultimately causing the fall of the government.

Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi and Science and Technology Minister Izhar Shay have also decided that they will not remain with a Gantz-led Blue and White, according to Channel 12 news.

A large number of other lawmakers in the party are also looking elsewhere, according to TV reports, inquiring into the possibility of joining parties across the political spectrum, from Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid in the center to Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope and Naftali Bennett’s Yamina on the right, though it is unclear whether any of these three parties is interested in taking them.

Gantz entered politics two years ago, vowing to replace Netanyahu, then merged his nascent Israel Resilience party with Yesh Atid to form Blue and White, and narrowly failed in three elections to form a coalition without Netanyahu’s Likud. While Gantz campaigned on the promise that he would not serve in a government with Netanyahu so long as the prime minister faces corruption charges, he agreed to do just that in late March, and formed a unity government with Netanyahu in May. Furious, Yesh Atid and a second minor faction broke away from Blue and White and went into the opposition.

Netanyahu and Gantz reached an agreement that was supposed to see Gantz replace Netanyahu as prime minister in November 2021, but a loophole in the agreement saw the coalition collapse due to Netanyahu’s refusal to pass an annual budget.

Israel is consequently now gearing up for a fourth election after the Knesset dissolved last week. But polls have made clear that Gantz has lost the support of almost all of the voters who got behind him in the past three elections.

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