Israeli foreign minister joins exodus from centrist party

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel’s foreign minister said Wednesday he is leaving the Blue and White party and taking a “break” from politics, marking the further disintegration of the centrist party that came close to unseating Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in three hard-fought elections.

Gabi Ashkenazi, a former military chief of staff, is joining an exodus from Blue and White ahead of March elections in which the party is expected to lose most of the 17 seats it currently holds in the 120-member Knesset, or parliament.

“I have decided not to continue in Blue and White. I am taking a break and will consider my path,” Ashkenazi said in a statement.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, another former top general and the leader of Blue and White, said he respected Ashkenazi’s decision. He said that as foreign minister Ashkenazi had played a key role in halting Israel’s plans to annex parts of the West Bank and in normalization agreements reached in recent months with a number of Arab states.

Gantz formed an emergency government with Netanyahu in May after three inconclusive elections in less than a year. The government was supposed to set politics aside to confront the coronavirus crisis but has been paralyzed by infighting.

The Knesset dissolved last week after the government failed to pass a national budget for 2020. Israel now heads to its fourth national election since April 2019, while facing a runaway coronavirus outbreak, a devastating economic crisis and a prime minister on trial for corruption.

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai announced Tuesday he was forming a new faction that already appears on track to eclipse Blue and White.

He was flanked by Avi Nissenkorn, a former labor union leader who served as Israel’s justice minister, who bolted from Blue and White earlier that day. Blue and White lawmakers Assaf Zamir and Miki Haimovich jumped ship earlier this week.

The crowded race also includes Gideon Saar, Netanyahu’s chief rival within the ruling Likud party, who broke away earlier this month to form a rival faction called “A New Hope.”

Polling shows Netanyahu’s Likud party winning the most seats but struggling to form a majority coalition because of rivalries with other right-wing factions. Blue and White is on track to see its share of seats drop into the single digits.

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