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Veteran Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai launches new center-left party, ‘The Israelis’

‘Israel can and must be run differently,’ declares longtime Labor member; Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn leaves Blue and White to join him

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai announces his new 'The Israelis' party, December 29, 2020. (Screenshot: YouTube)
Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai announces his new 'The Israelis' party, December 29, 2020. (Screenshot: YouTube)

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai launched a new center-left political party, The Israelis, on Tuesday to run in the elections in March, recruiting Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn as his second-in-command.

Launching his campaign with an impassioned speech, Huldai said he could not “stand idly by” as Israel is led by a “crazy” right-wing government, which he charged was eroding the country’s core values and threatening its democracy.

He lamented that Israelis have “grown accustomed” to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s alleged corruption and divisive style of leadership, and vowed he will get Israel out of its current “despair.”

“We have grown accustomed to a crazy government. I will no longer stand idly by, I am here to announce a new party,” he said, recounting his history as an IDF fighter pilot, as an educator and — for the past 22 years — as the mayor of Tel Aviv.

“We can stop with the despair. I’m doing this for my children, and mainly for my grandchildren. Israel can and must be run differently,” he said, declaring himself — not right-wing politician Gideon Sa’ar and other Likud defectors — as the true alternative to Netanyahu.

Huldai, 76, grew up in the Labor party, and to many on the left represents the last vestige of the old Labor guard who can still muster election wins — even if only in the secular left-wing bastion of Tel Aviv.

He could fill the gap left by Israel’s near-defunct Labor party, which fell to its lowest-ever showing in the March elections before joining Netanyahu’s coalition in violation of its campaign promises. Recent opinion polls have predicted that in its current formation, the dovish party that governed Israel for the first three decades of its existence won’t clear the electoral threshold.

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai and Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn, December 29, 2020. (Screenshot: YouTube)

Huldai’s party joins a crowded field of parties seeking the center-left vote, including Yesh Atid, Labor, Meretz and a new party being set up by former Yesh Atid MK Ofer Shelah.

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai in Tel Aviv, October 31, 2017 (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Huldai was joined at his press conference by Nissenkorn, who earlier in the day announced that he was leaving the Blue and White party to join the Tel Aviv mayor’s nascent movement.

“We will not grow accustomed to a prime minister under indictment, we will not grow accustomed to harm to the courts, we will not grow accustomed to a million unemployed and tens of thousands of businesses collapsing,” Huldai declared, referring to Netanyahu’s ongoing corruption trial, efforts by his Likud party to change the judicial system, and the economic impact of the coronavirus crisis.

He said his party will safeguard democracy and the justice system, create socially-minded reforms, care for small businesses, for women’s and minorities’ rights, and oppose religious coercion and rampant violence in the Arab community.

Listing the values that The Israelis party will champion, Huldai noted that he would not accept the so-called override clause, a long-stalled bill backed by right-wing parties that would give the Knesset the power to override Supreme Court decisions.

He also declared his opposition to the closure of mini-markets on Saturdays, an issue pushed by ultra-Orthodox parties that are allied with Netanyahu’s Likud party. Huldai added that he will oppose attempts to annex parts of the West Bank, a measure supported by the right-wing camp.

Huldai was born in 1944 in Kibbutz Hulda in central Israel, which gave the family its name. He had a long career in the IDF as a combat pilot and was principal of the prestigious Herzliya Gymnasium high school in Tel Aviv for six years, before becoming mayor in 1998.

Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn seen during a visit at the Jerusalem Municipality on November 10, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Speaking after Huldai, Nissenkorn said “Israel is at a critical junction” and explained why he had left Blue and White, which is led by Defense Minister Benny Gantz.

Thanking Gantz for their work together in the past, Nissenkorn said that Blue and White “is increasingly moving away from my principles and worldview.”

Gantz had earlier told Nissenkorn that he must resign his position as justice minister after defecting to Huldai’s party.

Minutes before Huldai’s press conference, Gantz held a similar press briefing in which he declared that he will continue to serve as party leader in the upcoming election campaign.

The Likud party responded in a statement saying “We wish Gantz and Huldai luck while Prime Minister Netanyahu brings millions of vaccines to Israel, gets Israel out of the coronavirus crisis and revives us.”

Blue and White has slid in prediction polls, with recent surveys showing it struggling to beat the threshold for entry into the Knesset. The party has been bleeding members since the unity government failed to pass a state budget by a deadline last week, automatically dissolving the Knesset and triggering elections. Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi is expected to soon announce that he is leaving Blue and White and taking a break from political life.

Likud has also lost four members in the recent political shuffling, with Gideon Sa’ar, a longtime lawmaker for the party, announcing he was leaving to form a rival party, New Hope.

Recent opinion polls have signaled Netanyahu’s Likud would be the largest party after the next election, but his bloc of right-wing and religious parties would fall short of a majority. Sa’ar’s New Hope party would be the second-largest, with Yesh Atid-Telem in third place.

According to a poll released by Channel 12 on Sunday, a theoretical new center-left party including Huldai, Labor leader Amir Peretz, Blue and White MK Avi Nissenkorn, and former Yesh Atid MK Ofer Shelah could gain up to seven seats, weakening primarily Yesh Atid and Blue and White.

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