Omer Yankelevich, Israel’s first-ever female ultra-Orthodox minister, announced Tuesday that she was leaving Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party and would not run in the upcoming March 23 Knesset elections.
Yankelevich, the Diaspora affairs minister, had been considered one of the closest allies of party leader Gantz.
But she has recently been at the center of increasing tensions within the centrist party, and ended up joining an avalanche of members departing the crumbling party, which won 14 seats in last year’s election (in an alliance with Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid and Moshe Ya’alon’s Telem, which won a total of 33) but is now teetering on the edge of extinction, according to recent opinion polls.
Yankelevich was at the center of a disinformation campaign during the previous elections, in which social media accounts supporting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party spread rumors that she was having an affair with Gantz. Last month a Channel 12 news report dropped hints about alleged ties between the minister and Gantz.
In a statement sent to Blue and White members, Yankelevich said Tuesday: “I have personally paid a heavy price. Baseless lies were published about me. But I chose to ignore the defamation campaign and focus on work and on a real public mission, rather than dealing with intrigues and revenge, hoping that the path of those who come after me will be easier.
“A month ago, I felt a growing uneasiness,” she wrote. “Back then I informed the party chairman that I had no intention of running in the next election, but Benny Gantz asked me to reconsider. After deliberations, I notified him of my final decision last night.”
Last year it was reported that a senior member of Blue and White hired private detectives to follow Yankelevich, without Gantz’s knowledge. Channel 12 news reported Yankelevich noticed she was being followed after returning to Israel from a trip to New York in July 2019.
Yankelevich angered other Blue and White lawmakers in November by indicating that her party supports the legalization of wildcat outposts in the West Bank, many of which are built on private Palestinian land.
Earlier this week she got into a squabble with Gantz at a Blue and White faction meeting discussing the current coronavirus lockdown.
She said she supported the continued tight lockdown and urged hearing more experts, departing from the party line pushing for reopening some businesses and education institutions, according to Hebrew media. She said that “people will die” if restrictions were to be eased.
“I know what experts you are talking to,” reportedly retorted Gantz, who has been decrying the continued systematic violations in the ultra-Orthodox community and the lack of enforcement. “What they are suggesting is relevant for New Zealand, not Israel. In Israel, it seems like the rabbi has the final say, not the law.”
Yankelevich was the second female ultra-Orthodox Knesset member in Israel’s history, after Tzvia Greenfeld of the left-wing Meretz party in 2008.
As Diaspora affairs minister, she made surprising inroads with the ultra-Orthodox establishment, which at first shunned her since only men normally serve as elected officials in the conservative community.