Says PM's 'hysterical' virus rules destroyed businesses

Avidar resigns as minister; says PM aping Netanyahu, won’t honor rotation with Lapid

Blow for gov’t as Yisrael Beytenu maverick returns to Knesset, where his vote may be vital on any bill; claims coalition focused on ‘selfies, TikTok’ as opposition works to oust it

Minister Eli Avidar speaks during a press conference at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, on February 22, 2022 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Minister Eli Avidar speaks during a press conference at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, on February 22, 2022 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Yisrael Beytenu’s Eli Avidar resigned from his ministerial position in the cabinet on Tuesday, criticizing Prime Minister Naftali Bennett for a “hysterical” approach to virus regulations, and saying that the premier is imitating his predecessor and does not plan to honor the rotation deal.

Avidar will now return to the Knesset where, since the coalition numbers just 61 of the 120 Knesset members, he could now hold the crucial vote on any legislation, complicating the day-to-day business of the government. He said he would “do everything I can to ensure this government completes its term,” but added that the government’s survival had to stand for something.

“Bennett does not intend to honor the rotation,” Avidar charged, referring to the agreement that will see Foreign Minister Yair Lapid take over as head of the government in September 2023.

“The man grew up on Netanyahu and does not intend to free himself of him. He copies him in his every move,” Avidar said, in an apparent reference to the former premier’s maneuver that prevented Blue and White chief Benny Gantz from becoming prime minister in the previous government.

Avidar, a long-time critic of coronavirus regulations, who initially refused to get vaccinated, had sharp words for the premier over government policy relating to the Omicron wave, saying that it was a death knell for some businesses.

“Bennett’s hysterical press conference in the shadow of the Omicron destroyed overnight businesses that were just beginning to recover,” Avidar said. “I tried to influence the policy and the conversation from the inside. I met with Bennett twice and I reminded him that this is a historic government, a government of change, and not just a continuation of the Netanyahu government.”

Avidar said of Bennett that: “I begged him to stop the incitement and [instead] bring hope.”

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (R) and Yisrael Beytenu MK Eli Avidar attend a plenum session in the Knesset, on July 12, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The Yisrael Beytenu lawmaker said the coalition was too concerned with “selfies and TikTok videos” while the opposition was trying to topple the government.

“The conservative camp works all year round, but the democratic camp goes to bed the day after the election — both when it is in the coalition and also when it is in the opposition. They take selfies and make cool TikTok videos,” Avidar said. “You don’t win like that.”

Avidar will now return to the Knesset as a lawmaker, remaining in the coalition but potentially complicating the government’s legislative efforts.

“I have submitted my letter of resignation from the government,” Avidar said. “I will continue to work from the Knesset, and I will make sure that this government keeps the promises made to the public that brought it to power.”

“I’ll do everything I can so to ensure this government completes its term, but the government’s survival isn’t a value in itself… the government has to fulfill its promises,” he said. “Policy in recent months has made my stay [in the coalition] unbearable. I waited [with my resignation] so that it was not a shock. I did my best in the current government and now I will do so from the Knesset.”

Avidar listed what he said were achievements he had helped fulfill.

“I am proud that during my membership in the government, we stopped Shin Bet tracking [of virus patients] and I am proud that I contributed to the approval of an investigation into the submarine affair. I am proud that I did not agree for the government to force citizens to wear [vaccine proof] bracelets at the entrances to malls,” he said, citing two examples of virus regulations that were nixed, and the creation of a state commission of inquiry into submarine and naval vessel purchases that occurred under the government of Netanyahu.

Avidar was an outspoken campaigner against virus regulations and a prominent figure in the protests against Netanyahu and alleged corruption.

Eli Avidar attends a protest against Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on August 22, 2020 (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Avidar, who served as a minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, has long been a critic also of the government of which he is a member, with his discontent increasing after he did not receive the senior ministerial posting he was expecting when the government was formed.

Avidar had been expecting to take over from Intelligence Minister Elazar Stern after the latter was to assume the chairmanship of the Jewish Agency. However, Stern withdrew his Jewish Agency candidacy amid controversy over comments suggesting he had ignored sexual harassment complaints as head of the IDF’s Manpower Directorate.

Stern therefore remained in his ministerial position, leaving Avidar without the role he had been expecting.

“My resignation comes three months too late; it should have come once the position of intelligence minister was no longer relevant” for him, Avidar said Tuesday.

“Since it was clear that the appointment as intelligence minister was no longer an option, I was asked to stay. I was offered to build a ministry — prestigious positions — and I immediately refused. I did not come into politics for prestigious positions,” Avidar said.

Opposition Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu walks next to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett during the vote on the state budget, in the Knesset on November 4, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

When Avidar was appointed minister in the Prime Minister’s Office in August 2021, he immediately resigned from the Knesset under the so-called Norwegian Law, which allows ministers and deputy ministers to resign their Knesset seats and be replaced by the next candidate on their party’s electoral slate. Avidar’s return to the Knesset will mean that his replacement from Yisrael Beytenu, Sharon Roffe Ofir, will have to leave the parliament.

Ahead of the resignation, Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar addressed the reports of the expected announcement, saying that though the coalition was experiencing some turbulence, Avidar had worked hard to establish the government and he did not believe he would do anything to jeopardize its existence.

Gideon Sa’ar speaks in Jerusalem, on March 7, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“It certainly does not help the work of the government. This government has had several problems in recent weeks, and this is affecting our work in the Knesset,” Sa’ar told the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations on Tuesday in Jerusalem.

“Eli Avidar worked hard to establish a ‘change government’ in Israel, and I am sure that although he will be much more independent in the Knesset, he will not harm the stability of the government,” Sa’ar said.

Avidar’s announcement came during a turbulent time for the coalition, after Blue and White proclaimed on Monday that it would not cooperate on government-backed bills due to “the apparent damage to state security and the breach of coalition obligations for a period of months.”

Gantz and the other members of his party decided to skip all Knesset plenum votes on Monday, with the exception of a no-confidence motion.

The defense minister said he has been holding a “quiet dialogue” with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid to address a series of concerns, including passing the ultra-Orthodox draft law, benefits for reserve soldiers, reforms to the national service system, and legislation to ease the way from military service to higher education.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz leads a Blue and White party meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem on February 14, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The Blue and White statement did not explicitly mention military pensions, but Gantz railed against the government on the issue during a speech Monday morning. He claimed that critics of the IDF pension hike were spreading “blood libels” against military officers.

The Kan public broadcaster reported Tuesday that the Meretz party had raised a proposal to end the IDF pension bill crisis, saying that it and Labor would remove opposition to the legislation in return for an increase to the minimum wage.

Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman, the head of Yisrael Beytenu, has not publicly responded to the proposal nor to Avidar’s resignation.

Both Labor and Meretz publicly criticized Liberman’s new economic plan, unveiled earlier this month, in which the minimum wage would rise in the near term by just 0.54 shekels — drastically less than would be seen in legislation that many have been pushing to advance, and below the rate that the average wage has risen.

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