Warning the public against Netanyahu, a defecting confidant lands a heavy blow

Israelis have become inured to cynical politicians’ slogan-filled TV statements. But Ze’ev Elkin was emotional and specific. And, as someone once very close to the PM, devastating

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) sits with then-minister Ze'ev Elkin during a special cabinet meeting for Jerusalem Day at the Ein Lavan spring in Jerusalem, June 2, 2016. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) sits with then-minister Ze'ev Elkin during a special cabinet meeting for Jerusalem Day at the Ein Lavan spring in Jerusalem, June 2, 2016. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)

Ze’ev Elkin did not start his political career in Likud. The immigrant from the former Soviet Union, with a rich, diverse educational background ranging across maths and physics to history, Jewish studies and beyond, first entered the Knesset in 2006 with Kadima.

But he moved to Likud ahead of the 2009 elections that brought Benjamin Netanyahu back to power, explaining that Kadima was becoming too left-wing, and was extremely close to the prime minister for much of the past decade, including serving as his coalition chairman, close adviser and translator/confidant in all dealings with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Thus his emotional resignation speech Wednesday night — during which his voice broke a couple of times and he seemed not far from tears — was unusually potent.

Here was a genuine insider in the court of the prime minister savaging Netanyahu’s integrity, declaring that he could not in good faith tell Israel’s citizens to vote for him, and announcing that he was now joining Gideon Sa’ar in an effort to build what amounts to Likud II — the democratic, principled movement it used to be in the era of Menachem Begin.

Ze’ev Elkin announces his resignation from Likud as he joins Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope party, December 23, 2020 (Kan TV screenshot)

Elkin’s address will have been devastating to Netanyahu, and unusually impactful on an Israeli TV audience largely inured to the endless parade of its politicians’ live broadcasts, because he exposed humiliating specifics about what motivates the prime minister.

Hitherto, the widespread assessments and accusations that Netanyahu has been cynically manipulating Israeli politics through three, now four election campaigns over the past two years for his own personal and legal needs were, for all their credibility, ultimately largely outsiders’ assessments and anonymous accusations.

But on Wednesday night Elkin, who was in the room, stood up in public and cited specifics. He had, he revealed, personally implored Netanyahu to avert March 2020’s elections by forging a unity government with Blue and White. But Netanyahu refused to do so because, said Elkin, he was hoping for a fresh parliament that would give him immunity from prosecution, and/or pass a retroactive French-style law in which the prime minister could not be put on trial so long as he held office.

“You hoped for immunity from prosecution and the French law,” Elkin recalled, relating that he’d told Netanyahu it would never happen. “That’s when my faith in you cracked.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Environmental Protection Minister Ze’ev Elkin meet in Moscow, Russia, January 29, 2018. (Courtesy PMO)

These new elections, too — the ones to which Israel was condemned at midnight Tuesday because no state budget for 2020 has yet been passed — were a direct consequence of Netanyahu’s selfish and misguided maneuverings, Elkin charged. “You know the truth,” he said, again directly addressing the prime minister. “We’re going to these surreal elections because you want to influence [the appointment of the] state attorney and the attorney general, and because of your hope for a French law [to stop your trial].”

Elkin went on to accuse Netanyahu of nothing less than “destroying Likud” by turning it into a personality cult in which no criticism of the leader is tolerated, and “destroying the [Likud] movement’s democracy” by ignoring the results of party primaries and promoting sycophants and blind loyalists.

He gave voice to that frequent charge that Netanyahu makes empty promises with no intention of keeping them — to “friends, allies, activists and ordinary citizens.”

And he sounded a warning to Sa’ar’s rival would-be Netanyahu supplanter, Yamina leader Naftali Bennett — whose own Wednesday night TV speech, announcing (shock!) that he wants to be prime minister, Elkin eclipsed. Netanyahu, Elkin said, is now counting on Bennett “forgetting all the times you’ve tricked him and, like a battered woman, rushing back into your arms after the elections and saving you from your trial.”

Immediately after Elkin finished speaking, Likud, as he had predicted it would, accused him of lying, of sour grapes at his ridiculous most recent ministerial post — minister of higher education and water resources — and, of course, since he had started out in Kadima, of never having really been one of them.

But Elkin was in fact a longtime member of Netanyahu’s inner circle. And his defection speech constitutes a particularly heavy blow to the prime minister, and a major boost to Sa’ar.

Through three election campaigns, the entire Likud held firm around Netanyahu, defying the efforts of Benny Gantz’s Blue and White to probe for weaknesses. When Sa’ar broke away two weeks ago to form the New Hope party, the first crack appeared. But still, Sa’ar’s was a case of a longtime Netanyahu rival making an unsurprising bid to defeat him from the outside. Yifat Shasha-Biton, the next to leave, had only entered Likud with the demise of the Kulanu party. And New Hope’s two other Likud recruits, Michal Shir and Sharren Haskel, were known to be close to Sa’ar.

Elkin was no leadership rival, and he is no Sa’ar acolyte. Rather, contemplating the unthinkable fourth election to which Israel has been plunged, he proved unable to stay put and keep silent — unable to urge the electorate, as he said, “to vote for someone I no longer believe in, and ask them to place their fate in your hands.”

And in contrast to those who proceeded him out of the Likud door, he departed not with slogans, but with damning explanations.

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