A longtime confidant of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he is quitting the ruling Likud party and joining an upstart political rival.
He accused the Israeli leader of plunging the country into an unnecessary election campaign in hopes of escaping corruption charges.
With his resignation on Wednesday, Zeev Elkin became the most high-profile name to join a burgeoning rebellion in the Likud against Mr Netanyahu.
In a departure from previous campaigns, Mr Netanyahu’s leading challengers share his hardline ideology, which opposes Palestinian independence and favours West Bank settlement construction.
Instead, their opposition is personal – meaning that Israel’s next government will almost certainly be from the nationalist right wing, complicating hopes by the incoming US administration of president-elect Joe Biden to renew peace talks.
On national television, Mr Elkin accused Mr 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,” Mr Elkin said.
He announced that he was joining the new party of Gideon Saar, another longtime Likud figure who quit the party this month. Mr Saar accused Mr Netanyahu of turning the Likud into a “personality cult”.
Israel plunged into its fourth election campaign in just two years on Wednesday after Mr Netanyahu and his main coalition partner, Benny Gantz, failed to meet a midnight deadline to pass a budget.
Mr Gantz, who formed the coalition with Mr Netanyahu last May after three inconclusive elections, accused Mr Netanyahu of forcing the March 23 election in hopes of securing a friendlier parliament prepared to grant him immunity from prosecution.
Mr Elkin made similar charges, saying he had pleaded with Mr Netanyahu to avoid the previous election campaign last March by giving up his quest for immunity and forming a coalition with Mr Gantz. Instead, those elections nearly led to an outright victory by Mr Gantz’s Blue and White party along with centre 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.”
Mr Elkin accused Mr Netanyahu of forcing the election – during a runaway coronavirus pandemic and devastating economic crisis – in an attempt 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.
Although Mr Elkin is not known as a charismatic politician, his departure was stunning and potentially damaging given his key role in the Likud and close ties with Mr Netanyahu. Mr Elkin held a number of senior Cabinet posts over the years and has a reputation as a key behind-the-scenes operator on behalf of Mr Netanyahu.
The Likud accused Mr Elkin, who holds the post of minister for water and higher education, of bolting because he was unhappy with his place in the Likud hierarchy. It called Mr Saar’s New Hope party a “refugee camp” for those who failed in Likud’s internal elections.
On Twitter, Mr Saar welcomed the move, calling Mr Elkin one of the “highest quality, smartest and valuable” politicians.
As Israel wearily enters another political campaign, Mr Netanyahu’s legal problems again seem to be the central issue on voters’ minds.
Mr Netanyahu is charged with fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in a series of scandals in which he is accused of offering favours to media figures in exchange for positive press coverage. His trial is expected to move into high gear in February, weeks before the election, when witnesses begin to take the stand.
Opinion polls forecast that Mr Netanyahu’s Likud will emerge from the election as the largest party, but that it will be impossible for him to form a coalition with his right-wing rivals.