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Op-ed

Ze’ev Elkin puts the first serious chink in Netanyahu’s Likud armor

Israeli politics are littered with ex-Likudniks who left in anger at the PM. Elkin is different, and his reasons for leaving reflect the growing disquiet of many in the party ranks

Haviv Rettig Gur

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Ze'ev Elkin attends a debate between candidates for the Jerusalem municipal elections, Jerusalem, October 21, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Ze'ev Elkin attends a debate between candidates for the Jerusalem municipal elections, Jerusalem, October 21, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Ze’ev Elkin did something exceedingly strange on Wednesday night. He surprised everyone.

His jump from Likud to Gideon Sa’ar’s new party came for no apparent reason. Elkin was already guaranteed a slot on Likud’s next Knesset list.

He was all but guaranteed, too, a seat at the cabinet table. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has a famous principle he uses to avoid the never-ending bickering and backbiting of Likud lawmakers for cabinet posts: he gives cabinet seats to the same people each time. (There are a few exceptions to that rule, all of them favored loyalists like Amir Ohana.)

As Netanyahu explained to reporters as recently as Tuesday, when he was asked why he hadn’t given former rival Sa’ar a cabinet post in the current — now transitional — government, “those who were ministers [in the previous government] will be ministers. It’s a simple principle.”

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)

Unlike Sa’ar, Elkin was a minister last time, and was almost certainly going to be one again in the not-wholly-unlikely scenario of Likud once again leading the next ruling coalition.

Instead, he left Likud for Sa’ar’s party, New Hope, for a possible upgrade if the new faction’s poll numbers bear out on election day — and just as likely a steep downgrade if the new party goes the way of most new parties and shrinks dramatically in the move from telephone survey to ballot box.

It’s not the first time Elkin has risked his political career in this way. He started out in politics in Kadima after Ariel Sharon plucked him out of academia in 2006. Elkin then fled the party in 2008 in an unwise public spat with its new leader Tzipi Livni, whom he accused of pulling the party too far leftward. A key point about that decision was that he abandoned Kadima before he had any promises from any other party. He risked his fledgling parliamentary career in that fight.

He managed to find his way into Likud largely due to his growing reputation as a savvy political operator. It was no accident that Netanyahu appointed the freshly minted Likud MK his coalition chairman in 2009, making him the government’s chief parliamentary whip. Elkin’s first parliamentary role for Likud was as its chief negotiator on all legislative and coalition matters.

Then-Likud ministers Ze’ev Elkin (left) and Gilad Erdan (right) with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset on May 25, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Netanyahu knew what he was doing. Elkin’s political acumen was the talk of the political scene on Wednesday.

Really.

He is “the most brilliant tactician and master of political intrigue I know,” was how Knesset Channel political reporter Yanir Kozin put it on Wednesday; “a very sharp political mind,” said Channel 12 analyst Amit Segal; “a brilliant politician who sees several steps ahead,” said analyst Daphna Liel.

His new boss Sa’ar, apparently pleased with the new draft pick, said, “I’ve always called him the ‘chess master.’ Ze’ev is brilliant, sees several moves ahead, intelligently analyzes complex systems of diverse interests.”

Gideon Sa’ar visits Hadassah Hospital Ein Kerem in Jerusalem on December 16, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

More to the point, Elkin earned that reputation the hard way, in legislative sausage-making in Israel’s cutthroat parliament. He is famously the only coalition chairman to have never lost a plenum vote. Or, rather, he lost one vote — the one that took place after he’d rushed out of the parliament building to join his wife in the hospital for the birth of their son.

The joke in the Knesset afterward was that it’s more impressive to lose the one vote you don’t attend than to win them all.

There’s no magic or mystery to Elkin’s success as coalition chair. He believes in negotiations, loves the cut and thrust of parliamentary wrangling, and has never been afraid to be seen in the Knesset cafeteria hammering out agreements with lawmakers from far-left to far-right, secularist to Haredi, Jew and Arab alike. He exchanged jokes happily with the likes of Ahmad Tibi, a far reach across multiple political aisles for both men.

“The trick,” he used to say, “is to turn the debate about principles into a debate about numbers. Once it’s about numbers, there’s always a number in the middle.”

Elkin is also a complex man. He’s an outspoken right-winger who opposes a Palestinian state in the West Bank, and also a fervent advocate for Israeli Jewish schoolchildren to be taught Arabic as a mandatory language (alongside Hebrew and English) in state schools, and for Israel’s state education curriculum to highlight longstanding ties and affinities between Jews and Arabs, and between Judaism and Islam. An observant Orthodox Jew, he knows Arabic himself, and a Quran sits prominently alongside Jewish religious texts on his bookshelf at home.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with then-Likud MK Ze’ev Elkin during a plenum session in the Knesset on May 13, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

And finally, he’s a deep believer in Likud, or at least in what he believes it should be. His voice broke on Wednesday night as he delivered his brief speech accusing Netanyahu of transforming the party into a “cult of personality,” and of being beholden to his family members in making key policy and campaign decisions. Netanyahu’s “Byzantine court,” he charged, is the antithesis of the old and robust internal democracy that once characterized the party.

He leaves behind close friends and confidants.

In their reactions to his decision Wednesday, Likud leaders reflected those feelings. Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin openly admitted he was stunned by the move. Even the more pugilistic Shlomo Karhi spoke in unusually hurt tones (“For two years we bled together to deliver a Likud victory”) as he lamented how “painful” it is to see such betrayal by “good people.”

Many leaders in the next Knesset, including Naftali Bennett, Avigdor Liberman, Sa’ar and others, are ex-Likudniks who fled the party during and because of Netanyahu’s leadership.

Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman, left, with then-Jewish Home head Naftali Bennett, center, and MK Ayelet Shaked in the Knesset plenum, May 11, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

But Elkin’s decision to leave Likud is different — or at least feels different within Likud. Even his new detractors in the party acknowledge privately that Elkin should not have felt the need to leave. Elkin led the party’s Russian-language campaign, served as Netanyahu’s top adviser and translator in the most significant strategic talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and was a linchpin of Likud’s coalition negotiating team. He was trusted, he was loyal — and when he left it was painful for everyone, including himself.

So it matters that he left railing against a “Byzantine court” and “cult of personality.” It’s no mere campaign rhetoric.

Elkin opened a window into a growing sense among Likud lawmakers that Netanyahu’s family, his wife Sara and son Yair, hold overpowering sway over his political decisions, that loyalty to him has choked all paths to leadership and influence for anyone else, and that the result is a culture of sycophancy and rude populism that grate against the party’s longstanding self-image of dignified conservatism.

Netanyahu’s long rule, say many longtime activists, has degenerated into a kind of self-policed fealty that has decimated the party’s internal institutions.

By their very nature, such assertions about sentiment or culture can neither be proven nor disproven. But every political reporter who makes the effort of speaking to Likud lawmakers and central committee members outside the reach of cameras or microphones hears such sentiments surprisingly often. Something is breaking within Likud, something in the shared assumptions that once guided the ruling party.

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

This article is marked as an op-ed because Elkin has been a close friend of this writer for many years, since long before his rise to political prominence. That history usually means this writer has avoided writing about him except when necessary and in passing, and disclosures or careful reviews by editors were required whenever mention was made.

But it’s also marked as an op-ed because that very closeness now offers an opportunity to briefly shine a spotlight on part of the story of Likud’s inner life that is hard to lay before the reader in precise analytical terms.

Elkin remains a dyed-in-the-wool right-winger. He was careful not to accuse Netanyahu of corruption on Wednesday, the usual complaint from the center-left. That’s because he shares the right’s critique of the judiciary and the state prosecution, including when it comes to the Netanyahu trial.

But that makes the accusation he did make all the more damning: Whether or not the case against Netanyahu has merit, the prime minister has allowed his legal woes to drive his political calculations, and it is those calculations that drove his repeated decisions to push an exhausted and depleted nation to new rounds of elections. Netanyahu now wholly conflates his own interests and those of the country, Elkin argued.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, surrounded by Likud lawmakers, gives a televised statement before the start of his corruption trial at the Jerusalem District Court on May 24, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Elkin has grown increasingly distant from Netanyahu over the past year — by choice. He was pointedly missing from the group of Likud politicians who stood behind the prime minister on the opening day of his trial to serve as a show of political muscle. His loyalty to the party didn’t waver until the end, but his loyalty to Netanyahu has slowly ebbed away as he grew convinced Netanyahu’s priorities had shifted, and that his leadership style had begun to gut and diminish the party.

The point here isn’t to praise Elkin. Others have done so sufficiently. Nor to criticize him. Others have ably risen to that challenge as well. Unlike some politicians, no mystery or vague platitudes surround his political views and priorities, and he’s one of those political animals who relish the argument. He was and will continue to be a target for both praise and criticism.

The point here is simply to suggest to readers following the frenetic changes now sweeping through Israeli politics that Elkin’s decision reflects more than a single man’s political calculations. The ground is shifting within Likud. The mood has changed.

Whether the growing disquiet eventually topples Netanyahu or is soon extinguished in the mobilizing fury of the coming race is anyone’s guess. But it’s there, it’s real, and it’s strong enough to drive some hard choices even among loyal party members.

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