JERUSALEM (AP) — A longtime confidant of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Wednesday that he is quitting the ruling Likud party and joining an upstart political rival, accusing the Israeli leader of plunging the country into an unnecessary election campaign in hopes of escaping corruption charges.
With his resignation, Zeev Elkin became the highest-profile name to join a burgeoning rebellion in the Likud against Netanyahu. The insurrection has already begun to reshape Israel’s political map and put the political survival of the long-ruling Netanyahu in question.
In a departure from previous campaigns, Netanyahu’s leading challengers share his hard-line ideology, which opposes Palestinian independence and favors West Bank settlement construction. Instead, their opposition is deeply personal — meaning that Israel’s next government will almost certainly be from the nationalist right wing, complicating hopes by the incoming Biden administration to renew peace talks.
In a blistering speech on national television, Elkin accused Netanyahu of “destroying the Likud” for personal interests.
“Unfortunately the past two years, and especially recently, I feel more and more that his personal considerations and the whims of his inner circle are playing a central role in the decision making process,” Elkin said.
He announced that he was joining the new party of Gideon Saar, another longtime Likud figure who quit the party this month. Saar has accused Netanyahu of turning the Likud into a “personality cult.”
Israel plunged into its fourth election campaign in just two years Wednesday after Netanyahu and his main coalition partner, Benny Gantz, failed to meet a midnight deadline to pass a budget. Gantz, who formed the coalition with Netanyahu last May after three inconclusive elections, accused Netanyahu of forcing the March 23 election in hopes of securing a friendlier parliament prepared to grant him immunity from prosecution or dismiss the criminal charges altogether.
Elkin made similar charges, saying he had pleaded with Netanyahu to avoid the previous election campaign last March by giving up his quest for immunity and forming a coalition with Gantz. Instead, those elections nearly led to an outright victory by Gantz’s Blue and White party along with center and left-wing allies.
“That day, my faith in you cracked,” he said. “That crack has turned into a break recently and especially in recent weeks.”
Elkin accused Netanyahu of forcing the election — in the midst of a runaway coronavirus pandemic and devastating economic crisis — in a bid to appoint cronies to sensitive posts in the legal system.
“Mr. Prime Minister, you have destroyed the Likud,” he said, claiming that other top party members say similar things behind closed doors but are afraid to speak in public.
Although Elkin is not known as a charismatic politician, his departure was both stunning and potentially damaging given his key role in the Likud and close ties with Netanyahu. Elkin has held a number of senior Cabinet posts over the years and has a reputation as a key behind-the-scenes operator on behalf of Netanyahu. In a sign of Netanyahu’s trust in him, Elkin, an immigrant from the former Soviet Union, often accompanied the prime minister on trips to Russia to translate and mediate during sensitive security talks with President Vladimir Putin.
The Likud accused Elkin, who currently holds the post of minister for water and higher education, of bolting because he was unhappy with his current place in the Likud hierarchy. It called Saar’s “New Hope” party a “refugee camp” for those who have failed in Likud’s internal elections.
On Twitter, Saar welcomed the move, calling Elkin one of the “highest quality, smartest and valuable” politicians.
Earlier on Wednesday, Sharren Haskel, a junior Likud lawmaker, said she was also joining Saar’s party.
As Israel wearily enters another political campaign, Netanyahu’s legal problems again seem to be the central issue on voters’ minds.
Netanyahu has been charged with fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in a series of scandals in which he is accused of offering favors to media figures in exchange for positive press coverage. His trial is expected to kick into high gear in February, just weeks before the election, when witnesses begin to take the stand. Netanyahu denies the charges and says he is the victim of a witch hunt by a hostile media, police and judiciary.
Opinion polls have forecast that Netanyahu’s Likud will emerge from the election as the largest party, but it will be impossible for him to form a coalition with his right-wing rivals.
He has received a boost by kicking off a campaign this week to vaccinate the country against the coronavirus. But it remains to be seen how many people can be vaccinated before the election. Meanwhile, Israel is on the cusp of a third lockdown due to a rising coronavirus outbreak, and voters could punish Netanyahu for the economic damage they have suffered.