Hendel calls for merger of small right-wing parties

Meretz minister says he won’t run in next election, urges party chair to step aside

Esawi Frej insists he’ll remain active in public service to strengthen left-wing bloc, Jewish-Arab partnership; argues that Horowitz failed leadership test

Regional Cooperation Minister Esawi Frej at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on July 14, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Regional Cooperation Minister Esawi Frej at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on July 14, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Regional Cooperation Minister Esawi Frej announced Tuesday that he will not run in the upcoming election, bringing an end to a near-decade run with the left-wing Meretz party.

Frej made the announcement in a television interview, during which he called on his party’s current chairman, Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz, to resign over his struggles managing the faction and endorsed Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg to replace him as Meretz chief.

Frej, the most senior Arab member of the cabinet and one of the government’s most outspoken proponents, said the outgoing coalition represented a historic opportunity to strengthen Jewish-Arab partnership in an era plagued by polarization.

While the regional cooperation minister has generally focused on bolstering Israel’s ties to neighboring Arab states, Frej made a point of expanding his portfolio to include the Palestinian issue and was regularly in touch with colleagues in Ramallah in an effort to try and strengthen the Palestinian Authority, even as the government was led by a premier in Naftali Bennett who refused to engage in any political negotiations with the PA.

“I do not intend to be a Knesset member in the next Knesset, but I will continue to be active in public service,” Frej told Channel 12, arguing that he could contribute more to Meretz and the left-wing bloc from outside parliament where he is not influenced by political interests.

Grading the performance of Horowitz as Meretz chairman, Frej said he deserved credit for the six seats the party won in the last election and for ensuring that it was part of the government. As for the health minister’s efforts since then, Frej said Horowitz “failed the leadership test.”

Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz with MK Tamar Zandberg and Meretz party member Esawi Frej during a press conference in Tel Aviv on January 4, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

“He won six seats, did not know how to maintain them,” Frej said, in an apparent reference to Horowitz’s inability to keep MK Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi in line.

Rinawie Zoabi briefly quit the coalition in May and later helped sink a bill key to the coalition’s survival, contributing to the government’s collapse. Horowitz was criticized for not properly vetting Rinawie Zoabi before granting her a spot on the Meretz list, as the Arab lawmaker’s politics wound up being far closer to that of the further left-wing Joint List. The Meretz chairman was also criticized for largely ignoring Rinawie Zoabi and other faction members, instead focusing largely on his efforts in the cabinet rather than getting involved in parliamentary matters.

Horowitz “can be an excellent MK, an excellent faction member, he is a man of values ​​and has done good things, but a leader he is not,” Frej said.

Horowitz issued a statement in response that highlighted his bringing Meretz into a government for the first time in 20 years as well as his decision to promote Frej as minister “in order to strengthen the Jewish-Arab partnership.”

Meretz MK Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi arrives for an interview at Channel 12’s Neve Ilan studios, May 19, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

“Meretz is the political home of the left and in the upcoming elections will lead a line of freedom and equality that will speak to the left-wing public in Israel. I thank Esawi Frej for his contribution to Meretz and wish him well,” Horowitz said, indicating that he has no intention not to run again.

For his part, Frej said Zandberg would be a better fit, while arguing MK Yair Golan would be the wrong choice as he does not truly represent the Israeli left.

Also on Tuesday, Communication Minister Yoaz Hendel of the coalition’s New Hope party called for the creation of a joint right-wing bloc ahead of the upcoming election.

“We formed a good government, it had a lot of problems, but it is impossible to head to this next election when we are fragments of parties — Derech Eretz, New Hope, Yamina, Matan Kahana and all sorts of other things,” he said.

Hendel heads the Derech Eretz subfaction, which split off from Blue and White in the previous government and later joined Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope. Yamina was once led by former prime minister Naftali Bennett but he announced last week that he was quitting politics and handing the party leadership to Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked. Bennett’s ally, Deputy Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana is currently still a member of Yamina but is rumored to be weighing splitting off to join another party.

Yoaz Hendel (L) and Benny Gantz (R) at the Knesset on May 13, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

“We must create some kind of union. I am ready to work for it until we succeed because we cannot continue like this and risk the ability to once again form a unity government that has both the Zionist left and the statesmanly right,” Hendel told Channel 12. “In my opinion, it was excellent. We failed in a lot of things, I’m not ignoring this. I have a lot of complaints to Meretz and Zoabi and what happened there, but we must produce real power.”

New Hope in recent surveys has barely crossed the electoral threshold and the party has reportedly been in talks with the stronger Blue and White about the possibility of a merger. However, Channel 12 said the effort is facing obstacles due to an unwillingness by some in Blue and White to once again bring in Hendel after he previously bolted the faction and prevented party chairman Benny Gantz from forming a coalition with the majority-Arab Joint List.

Earlier Tuesday, veteran Likud lawmaker Yuval Steinitz announced that he too is leaving politics, 23 years after entering the Knesset and just weeks before the opposition’s leading party holds its primaries in anticipation of Israel’s November general election.

Citing the need for “some fresh air,” Steinitz closes a political career that included 12 consecutive years as head of five ministries, most significantly as finance minister from Likud’s 2009 return to power to 2013, and energy minister from 2015 to Likud’s fall into the opposition in 2021.

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