Ex-science minister, top government virus adviser join Ya’alon’s Telem party

Prominent anti-Netanyahu activist also joins ranks; doctors union chief Hagai Levine says he believes in former defense minister’s leadership

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Izhar Shay poses at the Knesset, on April 29, 2019 (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)
Izhar Shay poses at the Knesset, on April 29, 2019 (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

A day after confirming his split from the Yesh Atid party, former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon is beginning to recruit new public figures to the ranks of his Telem party.

Former science and technology minister Izhar Shay, who recently quit the Blue and White party, announced Sunday he was joining Telem. Shay, in a post on social media, said he was joining as Ya’alon’s “righthand man in creating a political home for liberal democrats in Israel,” adding that the party will seek to remove Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from power.

Doctors union chief Hagai Levine resigned as a member of the government coronavirus czar’s expert panel Saturday, announcing that he was joining Telem party to run in the upcoming March election. And in a surprise move, anti-Netanyahu protest leader Gonen Ben Yitzhak said he would also be joining the center-right party.

Levine, a Hebrew University professor and chairman of the Israel Association of Public Health Physicians, said Sunday morning that he was joining the party because, “I believe in the proven leadership” of Ya’alon.

He said Telem “represents and works for the goals and values that I strive for — placing the public interest above all, and concern for the welfare of the general public in Israel in all areas of life.”

Blue and White party member Moshe Ya’alon during a campaign event, March 18, 2019 (Blue and White)

“We needs a political force that promotes these values,” Levine said, a day after resigning from the expert committee appointed by coronavirus czar Nachman Ash, in a public letter berating the government for its decision-making process over the course of the pandemic.

“I, like most public health experts in Israel, believe that the Israeli public has fallen victim to the misconception of decision-makers at the political level,” Levine, a prominent opponent of national lockdowns, wrote in his Saturday resignation letter.

“Despite various efforts by us and other officials in the Health Ministry to promote a public-driven health approach to dealing with the crisis, this approach has not been tried in Israel. Instead of a totalitarian police approach, there should have been real cooperation and transparency with the public,” he said.

Hebrew University Prof. Hagai Levine during a Knesset Coronavirus Committee meeting in Jerusalem on October 13, 2020. (Shmulik Grossman/Knesset)

On Sunday he said that he had joined Telem “in order to be the change I want to see in the world and with the goal of integrating into the national leadership and protecting public health.”

Ya’alon welcomed Levine’s announcement, tweeting that the epidemiologist was “a a pioneer in modern community medicine” and had “maintained a professional backbone in the face of the amateurish management of the coronavirus crisis.”

Gonen Ben Yitzhak is taken by police during demonstrations against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on July 18, 2020 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Ben Yitzhak said Sunday that he had informed Ya’alon of his intention to also join the party.

“‘Bogey’ is a partner in the protest. I see him as a leader who deserves to be the prime minister of Israel,” Ben Yitzhak, a former officer in the Shin Ben Security agency who currently heads the Crime Minister group —  one of a number of protest organizations leading the weekly anti-Netanyahu protests — wrote on Twitter, using a common nickname for the former defense minister. “Many have called on me in recent months to run so here I am jumping into the water.”

Ya’alon described Gonen as “a social and democratic fighter, a representative of the protest and a representative of those who take to the streets every week because they love the country.”

“It’s great to march alongside you on this journey,” Ya’alon added in a tweet.

Moshe Ya’alon attends a protest march to Jerusalem against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on November 14, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In November, Gonen was indicted for attending a prohibited gathering and interference with a police officer in the performance of their duties for an incident at a July protest in Jerusalem that turned violent as police tried to end the demonstration.

According to the indictment, Ben Yitzhak was among a number of people who did not respond to a police demand that the demonstration come to a close and continued to illegally protest and make noise. Just after midnight, the police chief ordered the use of water cannons to disperse the crowds, but Ben Yitzhak lay down underneath the cannon and held on to it in an attempt to thwart its use.

Gonen Ben Yitzhak lies under a water cannon at a demonstration against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on July 18, 2020 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The announcements came after Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, a former partner of Ya’alon, confirmed Saturday night that Ya’alon would not be running with his party, tweeting: “I value and respect Moshe Ya’alon very much and wish him luck.”

Reports last week indicated that Ya’alon and Lapid had been unable to come to an agreement on the terms of a continued partnership.

Though polling has not yet been done this election cycle on an independent Telem run, conventional wisdom is that Ya’alon will be hard-pressed to win enough votes to enter the Knesset on his own.

From right to left: Blue and White party chairman Benny Gantz, Yair Lapid and Moshe Ya’alon at a faction meeting in Ramat Gan on December 25, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

In the previous election, Telem and Yesh Atid ran on a joint slate with Benny Gantz’s Israel Resilience party, an alliance known as Blue and White.

The party broke apart when Gantz decided to enter a coalition with Netanyahu in May 2020, citing the need to prevent a fourth consecutive election by forming a unity government that could tackle the health and economic crises caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Ya’alon and Lapid insisted that Netanyahu could not be trusted and would always place his personal interests, and his effort to evade prosecution from the criminal indictments he’s facing, over the greater good.

Gantz’s party continued under the moniker Blue and White, while Ya’alon and Lapid went to the opposition under the name Yesh Atid-Telem.

Despite Netanyahu and Gantz reaching a deal that was supposed to see Gantz replace Netanyahu as prime minister in November 2021, a loophole in the agreement saw the coalition collapse due to Netanyahu’s refusal to pass an annual budget.

Last month, Ya’alon said he would run with a separate party and have ex-IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot as his number two. Eisenkot, however, has reportedly told associates that he has decided not to enter politics for now and will not run in the upcoming elections.

Ya’alon joins a crowded field, with Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, former Finance Ministry accountant-general Yaron Zelekha, former Yesh Atid MK Ofer Shelah, former head of the Mossad intelligence agency Danny Yatom and former Likud MK Gideon Sa’ar all establishing new parties over the last few weeks, as Israel gears up for a fourth election in two years.

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