Lawmaker Yifat Shasha-Biton on Tuesday became the first member of the ruling Likud to defect to Gideon Sa’ar’s new party, which the right-wing rival of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu launched last week.
Her announcement prompted calls from her Likud colleagues urging her to quit the Knesset.
On her Twitter account, Shasha-Biton shared a graphic of her and Sa’ar, with the caption “We’ve set out on our way.” Hebrew media reports indicated she would be No. 2 on Sa’ar’s New Hope slate.
With the announcement, Shasha-Biton became the third serving Knesset member to join Sa’ar, following Derech Eretz MKs Zvi Hauser and Yoav Hendel. Sa’ar himself quit Likud last week, and resigned from the Knesset, after unveiling his intention to challenge Netanyahu for the premiership.
Some Likud members, including Transportation Minister Miri Regev, told Shasha-Biton to resign.
“Yifat Shasha-Biton, if you have a drop of integrity left, resign immediately from the Knesset and return the mandate to the national camp which you took for a ride for your own benefit. A disgrace,” Regev tweeted.
— יפעת שאשא ביטון (@sbyifat) December 15, 2020
Coalition chair and head of the Likud Knesset faction Miki Zohar said he would “declare Shaha-Biton as a defector,” a quasi-legal term for an MK who leaves the party they were elected to represent and is therefore prevented from running on another’s list in the upcoming election.
“Her decision to run on another list revokes her right to represent the Likud faction in the Knesset,” he tweeted.
Shasha-Biton entered the Knesset in 2015 as a member of former finance minister Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party, which was absorbed into Likud last year.
Following the formation of a new government in May, Shasha-Biton was named chairwoman of the Knesset’s Coronavirus Committee, where she earned popular acclaim for overturning and criticizing a number of the government’s coronavirus restrictions.
Her decision to buck the prime minister also raised hackles from Netanyahu and his allies, who later stripped the committee of its power to overturn government rules.
Shasha-Biton was reportedly courted by Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett, another right-wing rival of Netanyahu who has enjoyed soaring support in the polls for his criticism of the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since Sa’ar announced last week he was leaving Likud to form his own party with the aim of replacing Netanyahu, Sasha-Biton was widely reported to be a likely candidate to join New Hope.
It was not immediately clear if she would resign from the Knesset, as Sa’ar did, or from her post as Coronavirus Committee chair. Neither Hendel nor Hauser, who joined the coalition as part of Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s Blue and White-led bloc, resigned from their respective positions of communications minister and head of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, but Gantz fired both on Monday.
Opinion polls published before Shasha-Biton joined New Hope said Sa’ar’s party would pick up 15-18 seats if new elections are held, shaking up the political landscape and introducing several potential paths to coalitions that do not include Netanyahu, while seriously narrowing the premier’s path to leading the next government.
Shasha-Biton’s decision to join with Sa’ar came as the Knesset appeared on course to dissolve, with Blue and White pushing a bill to call early elections.
Likud was seeking to prevent the further advancement of the bill, which was slated to come up for a first Knesset reading on Wednesday but has since been postponed, according to Hebrew media reports.
Likud’s opposition is not aimed at preventing the dissolution of the parliament, as even without the bill, the Knesset is already on track to dissolve later this month due to an impasse over the state budget, which has long been held up by Netanyahu’s party. Moreover, Netanyahu is widely believed to be planning to dissolve the government anyway before the 2021 budget must be passed in March, in order to prevent a scenario in which, as stipulated by their power-sharing agreement, Gantz will succeed him as prime minister.
Rather, Likud was seen as trying to thwart several clauses included in the Blue and White-pushed bill, which has a majority in the Knesset and has already cleared a preliminary plenum vote and been approved by the Knesset House Committee. It needs to pass three more plenum votes.
If elections are called, the fourth in under two years, they will likely be held in March.