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Likud’s Elkin officially quits Knesset to join forces with Netanyahu rival Sa’ar

Onetime confidant says PM has destroyed the party, sent Israel to avoidable elections for personal interest; colleagues say they were blindsided by the move

Then-environment protection minister Zeev Elkin attends the Likud Party's election campaign opening event in Jerusalem, on January 21, 2020.  (Gili Yaari/Flash90)
Then-environment protection minister Zeev Elkin attends the Likud Party's election campaign opening event in Jerusalem, on January 21, 2020. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

Ze’ev Elkin, a Likud cabinet minister known to be a confidant of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, officially resigned from the Knesset on Thursday to join the New Hope party led by the premier’s right-wing rival Gideon Sa’ar ahead of the March 2021 elections.

Elkin delivered a dramatic indictment of the Israeli leader Wednesday as he announced his surprise decision to quit Likud and join forces with Sa’ar, the longtime Netanyahu nemesis who bolted Likud and resigned from the Knesset two weeks ago to form his own party.

In his remarks, Elkin cited his lost faith in a prime minister he accused of increasingly placing his personal interests ahead of the country’s. He became the fourth Likud lawmaker to defect to Sa’ar’s fledgling party, which current polls suggest would be the second-largest in the Knesset after the elections.

Elkin on Thursday morning formally submitted his resignation to Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin, also a senior Likud member, as several of Elkin’s party colleagues admitted they were blindsided by his move.

“I was surprised by Elkin’s move because I think he’s smart. Perhaps he also realizes that this is a road leading nowhere,” Likud’s Health Minister Yuli Edelstein told Army Radio. “We’ve been friends for many years and I’m disappointed that he didn’t speak to me before. Perhaps I would have convinced him otherwise.”

Parliament Speaker Yuli Edelstein (center) with Jerusalem Affairs Minister Zeev Elkin (left) and Tourism Minister Yariv Levin of the Likud party at the Knesset on November 27, 2019 (Flash 90)

Likud MK Miki Zohar took a swipe at Elkin, who was water resources and higher education minister prior to his departure, claiming he had been seen as “no longer trustworthy in the eyes of the prime minister, and in many cases undermined him.”

In an interview with Army Radio, Zohar also maintained that Elkin’s move was aimed at earning more senior positions than those offered to him in Netanyahu’s party.

Zohar acknowledged he was surprised by Elkin’s resignation and alliance with Sa’ar.

“We didn’t expect Elkin to take this step and I’m very disappointed. It’s sad, because I don’t believe that it’s right to leave your home… There are always disagreements, but in the end, you do your dirty laundry at home,” said Zohar.

Likud MK Miki Zohar at the Knesset, October 21, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In an announcement carried live by all the major news networks on Wednesday night, Elkin accused Netanyahu of “destroying” Likud, claimed many in the party quietly agreed with him, and said he could no longer tell Israelis to “support someone that I’ve stopped believing in.”

Elkin castigated Netanyahu for dragging Israel into its fourth consecutive early elections. And he recalled what he said were his personal pleas to Netanyahu to avoid Israel’s most recent election in March.

“You know well the simple truth: For personal reasons, you have once again taken the country to its fourth election in two years… in the midst of a pandemic” while “trying to place the blame on others,” Elkin said.

“We’re going to these surreal elections because you want to influence [the appointment of the] state attorney and the attorney general, and because of your hope for a French law [to stop your corruption trial].”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Minister Zeev Elkin attend a ceremony of the unveiling of a new monument to the victims of the 1948 Altalena incident, at Nachalat Yitzhak cemetery in Tel Aviv. October 27, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Elkin stressed he had great respect for Netanyahu’s achievements, including his contributions to “Israel’s security, world standing and economy.” But he claimed that in the last two years the premier has made “personal considerations” the driving factor in his decision-making.

“As someone who is watching this dangerous process from up close, I see how his personal considerations are getting mixed up with the national considerations, and even triumphing” over the national interest, Elkin said.

“Prime minister, you have destroyed the Likud movement… and turned it into a personality cult” where critics are scared to speak, he claimed.

Elkin’s departure came after the government failed to pass a state budget for 2020 and 2021 by a Tuesday midnight deadline, amid incessant bickering between Likud and Blue and White, triggered the automatic disbandment of the Knesset and the calling of a fourth round of elections, set for March 23, 2021.

Elkin had been known to be close to Netanyahu, as his former coalition whip, his translator in dealings with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and a trusted confidant. Alongside Knesset Speaker Levin, he led Likud’s negotiations with Blue and White ahead of the formation of the current government.

Likud MK Sharren Haskel announcing her resignation from the Knesset and the Likud party, on December 23, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Earlier Wednesday, Likud MK Sharren Haskel said she would join Sa’ar, and the previous day fellow former party member Michal Shir said she was jumping to New Hope too. Shir’s and Haskel’s defections follow that of Likud MK Yifat Shasha-Biton, chair of the Knesset coronavirus committee, and the announcement from Derech Eretz MKs Yoaz Hendel and Tzvi Hauser of the Derech Aretz faction that they would also be joining Sa’ar.

Reacting to Elkin’s announcement, Levin said it was he who was “choosing personal considerations above loyalty to [the party’s] path.” And he asserted that Netanyahu had always chosen the country over any other matter.

Netanyahu said later Wednesday that Elkin was “simply lying” regarding Netanyahu’s desire for Knesset immunity, and also that Elkin had played no role in negotiations between Likud and Blue and White. “Likud is the most democratic” of all Israel’s parties, he also said, according to Channel 12 news.

Elkin immigrated to Israel from Ukraine in 1990. He entered the Knesset as a Kadima MK in 2006, but then switched to Likud in 2008, and has held his seat ever since.

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