Ze’ev Elkin, a Likud cabinet minister known to be a confidant of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, delivered an astonishing condemnation of the Israeli leader Wednesday as he announced his surprise decision to quit Likud and join Netanyahu rival Gideon Sa’ar, citing his lost faith in a prime minister he accused of increasingly placing his personal interests ahead of the country’s.
In an announcement carried live by all the major news networks, Elkin accused Netanyahu of “destroying” Likud, claimed many in the party quietly agreed with him, and said he could no longer tell Israelis to “support someone that I’ve stopped believing in” and place their fate in his hands.
Elkin said he would formally resign from the Knesset on Thursday and join forces with Sa’ar, a long-time nemesis to Netanyahu who quit Likud and resigned from the Knesset two weeks ago to form a rival political party, New Hope.
The outgoing higher education and water resources minister — a ministry set up for his benefit in the current government — castigated Netanyahu for dragging Israel into its fourth elections. And he recalled what he said were his personal pleas to Netanyahu to avoid Israel’s most recent election in March.
“You know well the simple truth: For personal reasons, you have once again taken the country to its fourth election in two years… in the midst of a pandemic” while “trying to place the blame on others,” Elkin said.
“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 corruption trial].
Elkin stressed he had great respect for Netanyahu’s achievements in the past, including his contributions to “Israel’s security, world standing and economy.” But he claimed that in the last two years the premier has made “personal considerations” the driving factor in his decision-making.
“As someone who is watching this dangerous process from up close, I see how his personal considerations are getting mixed up with the national considerations, and even triumphing” over the national interest, Elkin said.
“Prime minister, you have destroyed the Likud movement… and turned it into a personality cult” where critics are scared to speak, he claimed.
Elkin’s departure came after a failure to pass a state budget for 2020 and 2021 by a Tuesday midnight deadline, amid incessant bickering between Likud and Blue and White, triggered the automatic disbandment of the Knesset and the calling of a fourth round of elections, set for March 23, 2021.
Elkin had been known to be close to Netanyahu, as his former coalition chief, his translator in dealings with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and a trusted confidant. Alongside current Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin, he led Likud’s negotiations with Blue and White ahead of the formation of the current government.
He became the fourth Likud lawmaker to defect to Sa’ar’s fledgling party, which current polls suggest would be the second-largest in the Knesset after the elections.
Earlier Wednesday, Likud MK Sharren Haskel said she would join Sa’ar, a day after fellow former party member Michal Shir said she was jumping to New Hope too. Shir’s and Haskel’s defections follow that of of Likud MK Yifat Shasha-Biton, chair of the Knesset coronavirus committee, and the announcement from Derech Eretz MKs Yoaz Hendel and Tzvi Hauser of the Derech Aretz faction that they would also be joining Sa’ar.
Elkin said that ahead of the March 2020 election, “I begged you to prevent it… We could have had a unity government last time,” Elkin said. “But you hoped for [parliamentary] immunity from prosecution and [the passage of] the French law [to prevent a sitting prime minister from being indicted].”
Netanyahu has always denied seeking such legislation. But Elkin appeared to provide confirmation, from within the premier’s inner circle, that he did hope to get it passed.
Elkin said he lost much faith in the prime minister at that point.
“I can’t call for Israeli citizens to vote for you and be certain that you will act on their behalf rather than your own,” he said.
He added that he expected Netanyahu would dispatch his ministers to attack him in TV studios, but that they privately say exactly what he had just now said publicly.
“They are afraid of you, of the atmosphere you’ve created. You’ve crushed the party’s democracy,” he charged.
Elkin said high-ranking Likud members have no influence in the party, since Netanyahu does not reward those who score high in Likud primaries, and that he had “destroyed the [Likud] movement’s democracy.”
He also accused Netanyahu of breaking his promises — to friends, allies, activists and citizens.
“When you need to, you have no problem making promises with no intention of keeping them,” he said.
Elkin said Netanyahu was now counting on Yamina leader Naftali 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.”
Elkin said he hoped that Sa’ar’s recently announced New Hope will grow into the kind of movement Likud was under founder Menachem Begin.
Gideon Sa’ar welcomed Elkin to New Hope.
“Ze’ev is a person of the highest caliber, the smartest and most ethical in our political system. He has extensive experience in senior positions in the Knesset and government. His decision attests to his honesty, integrity and courage. I fiercely believe that together — we will succeed,” Sa’ar tweeted.
In response to Elkin’s announcement, Likud claimed he was disgruntled over his place on the party slate, noting he’d switched parties before, after starting his political career in Kadima.
“Water Minister Elkin skipped from Kadima to Likud and from Likud to Gideon [Sa’ar] simply because he didn’t get into the top 10 [slots] in Likud and didn’t receive the job he wanted. Gideon’s party is a refugee camp for defectors who failed in the democratic primaries in Likud and are unable to get elected,” Netanyahu’s party said.
Elkin placed 12th in the most recent Likud party primaries.
Reacting to Elkin’s announcement, Knesset Speaker Levin said it was he who was “choosing personal considerations above loyalty to [the party’s] path.” And he asserted that Netanyahu had always chosen the country over any other matter.
Netanyahu said later Wednesday that Elkin was “simply lying” regarding Netanyahu’s desire for Knesset immunity, and also that Elkin had played no role in negotiations between Likud and Blue and White. “Likud is the most democratic” of all Israel’s parties, he also said, according to Channel 12 news.
Elkin immigrated to Israel from Ukraine in 1990. He first entered the Knesset as a Kadima MK in 2006, but then switched to Likud in 2008, and has held his seat ever since.