MK Ofer Shelah says he’s leaving Yesh Atid to start his own party

Lawmaker cites longtime political partner Yair Lapid’s refusal to hold a leadership primary

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Screen capture from video of Yesh Atid MK Ofer Shelah announcing he was leaving the party to set up his own political movement, December 24, 2020. (Channel 12 news)
Screen capture from video of Yesh Atid MK Ofer Shelah announcing he was leaving the party to set up his own political movement, December 24, 2020. (Channel 12 news)

MK Ofer Shelah, a founding member of Yesh Atid, announced Thursday that he is leaving the centrist party to start his own political movement that will run in the approaching March elections.

At a midday press conference, Shelah cited as the reason for his move Yesh Atid leader MK Yair Lapid’s ongoing rejection of his demand to hold internal party leadership primaries.

“I demanded from Yair Lapid elections for the leadership of Yesh Atid but he refused and continues to refuse,” he said. “As a result, I am forced to leave Yesh Atid.”

“The sad story of Blue and White” exemplified the failings of putting together a party with star public figures, but without primaries, Shelah said, referring to Benny Gantz’s party, which has seen its popularity slip to the point where it is expected get fewer than half of its current 14 seats in parliament.

“I said [to Lapid] that without a profound change, Yesh Atid can’t continue to be an alternative [to Likud]. Lapid refused,” he said.

Roee Cohen, president of LAHAV, the Israel Chamber of Independent Organizations and Businesses, stood alongside Shelah and declared he would join his yet-to-be named party.

“Israel is at a critical juncture,” Shelah said. “The coming elections will decide if we continue to live under a failed and morally rotten rule, or end the longest political crisis the country has known. This juncture demands making brave decisions.”

Shelah’s party is expected to have a center-left platform. He said he will aim to renew the cooperation between the center-left bloc and ultra-Orthodox parties, a relationship that has soured in recent years to the point that ultra-Orthodox parties reportedly refuse to sit in a government with Lapid due to his demands for changes impacting the community.

He further said that while he won’t join a government with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he will work to prevent “boycotts of entire communities.”

Channel 13 reported that Shelah recently rejected an offer to take over the Labor party, which polls have predicted will not clear the electoral threshold into the Knesset.

Lapid tweeted in response that he “wishes Ofer Shelah success in his path and thanks him for his cooperation over the past nine years.”

According to Hebrew media reports, Lapid and Shelah have not been in communication for several weeks, during which it became clear that they would not be running together in the March elections.

MK Yair Lapid speaks at the Knesset in Jerusalem, August 24, 2020. (Oren Ben Hakoon/POOL)

In September Shelah had urged that Yesh Atid hold leadership primaries in preparation for the next elections, which would have been the party’s first since it was founded in 2012 by Lapid. However, Lapid swiftly rejected the idea, saying a leadership vote would only be held next year.

According to a report at the time Shelah told Lapid’s associates that Yesh Atid needs a change.

“Yesh Atid led by Yair Lapid is at a dead end, both electorally and politically,” Shelah was quoted as saying by the Walla news site. “Yesh Atid needs a change in conduct, statements, and leadership.”

Shela’s desertion of his party is the latest in a series of shifting allegiances that have seen lawmakers from both Likud and Blue and White leave for other parties.

On Tuesday night, Likud minister Ze’ev Elkin, a close confidant of Netanyahu, announced that he could no longer support the prime minister, whom he accused of putting personal needs ahead of those of the state.

Elkin said he would join former Likud member Gideon Sa’ar, who earlier this month left Likud to set up the New Hope party in a bid to challenge Netanyahu for the premiership. In addition to Elkin, Sa’ar has so far drawn three other Likud MKs to his party.

Elections were automatically triggered on Tuesday at midnight after the government failed to pass a state budget after months on internal fighting.

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