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More MKs expected to join Sa’ar’s party, which poll predicts will be 3rd biggest

Both Derech Eretz lawmakers seem set to back Likud MK, who’s forming a movement to challenge Netanyahu for premiership; colleagues from Likud may follow

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Then-Blue and White party members MKs Yoaz Hendel, Zvi Hauser seen in the Knesset in Jerusalem, April 29, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)
Then-Blue and White party members MKs Yoaz Hendel, Zvi Hauser seen in the Knesset in Jerusalem, April 29, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Several lawmakers, including Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel and MK Gideon Hauser, the two Derech Eretz faction lawmakers in the Knesset, are expected to soon declare they will join MK Gideon Sa’ar, who resigned from the Knesset Wednesday morning after announcing the night before he was leaving the Likud party to form a rival political movement.

A poll has already shown that the New Hope party Sa’ar is setting up would be the third largest in the Knesset and could deny Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies a majority should elections be held in the coming months, as expected.

Among the figures mentioned in reports who may also back Sa’ar were other Likud lawmakers.

Sa’ar, long seen as Netanyahu’s chief rival within Likud, announced his intention to leave the party at a Tuesday press conference in which he railed against the prime minister, saying Likud had become a “tool for the personal interests of the person in charge, including matters relating to his criminal trial,” and had fostered “a cult of personality” around Netanyahu.

As the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee opened a morning meeting Wednesday, chairman Hauser spoke of his decades of acquaintance with Sa’ar and praised him for his support for West Bank settlements, considered a key indicator of right-wing credentials.

In a possible hint at his intention to join forces with Sa’ar, Hauser said, “I have more than just a feeling that our paths will cross in the future.”

MK Gideon Sa’ar announces he is leaving Likud to form his own party, in a televised statement on December 8, 2020. (Screen capture: Facebook)

Hauser and Hendel entered the Knesset as part of the Telem party led by former Likud minister Moshe Ya’alon, which had formed an alliance with the Blue and White party. After the last elections Blue and White and Derech Eretz broke off to join the government coalition. Recent polls have shown they would not pass the electoral threshold to enter the Knesset if a vote was held.

The potential fallout from Sa’ar’s move was highlighted in a poll conducted on behalf of the 103FM radio station in the hours after his announcement, which found that if election were held New Hope would be the third largest party in the Knesset.

New Hope would siphon seats from Likud and from Blue and White, led by Defense Minister Benny Gantz, as well as from the opposition parties Yamina and Yesh Atid.

The Panels Politics poll gave Likud 25 seats, Yamina 19, New Hope 17, Yesh Atid 14, the Joint List 11, Shas 9, United Torah Judaism 7, Yisrael Beytenu 7, Blue and White 6, and Meretz 5. It had a margin of error of 4.4%.

The figures showed a key shift in the balance between Netanyahu and his allies and the rest of the Knesset. Previous polls had indicated that Netanyahu would emerge at the head of a bloc that would hold a narrow majority in the 120-seat Knesset — a different result from the indecisive results of the last three elections, which eventually led to the unity government.

However, with New Hope in the field, Likud along with its traditional allies Shas and United Torah Judaism would have just 41 seats. Even if he partnered with the nationalist Yamina party, which has vowed to unseat him, Netanyahu would have just 60 seats, one short of a majority.

In the wake of Sa’ar’s step, other names were also raised as possible candidates to join New Hope, among them Likud MK Yifat Shasha-Biton, chair of the Knesset Coronavirus Committee, who has clashed with the government over virus policy and drawn wrath from senior party officials.

Former IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot, who reportedly is considering entering the political arena with a right-of-center agenda, has also not ruled out joining Sa’ar, Channel 12 reported.

Likud MK Yifat Shasha-Biton during a Knesset Coronavirus Committee meeting in Jerusalem on October 13, 2020. (Shmulik Grossman/Knesset)

On Tuesday, Ramat Gan Mayor Carmel Shama-Hacohen announced that he will join Sa’ar’s movement, the Walla news website reported. Sources close to senior Likud officials said that other mayors are expected to also join New Hope, according to the report, which also named Likud MK Michal Shir as likely to switch to Sa’ar’s party.

Sa’ar’s Knesset seat will be filled by the next name on the Likud list, Nissim Vaturi.

Sa’ar, considered a political hawk, turned 54 on Wednesday, the day he presented his resignation from parliament to Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin. Levin, also of Likud, had reacted Tuesday night to Sa’ar’s announcement that he was leaving the party by saying it was “a big mistake.”

Likud issued a statement Tuesday saying Sa’ar had decided to leave because of his loss to Netanyahu in the Likud leadership race last December, and claiming recent internal polls had shown he’d do poorly in fresh primaries.

Likud MK Michal Shir at an orientation day at the Knesset, April 29, 2019. (Noam Moscowitz/Knesset)

Israel is widely believed to be hurtling toward elections — the fourth in two years. The Knesset last Wednesday gave initial approval to a bill to dissolve the parliament amid a budget crisis and call a new vote. The legislation requires three more votes to be final.

Yet many political analysts agreed Tuesday night that the current Likud-Blue and White coalition might incline more toward a compromise in the light of the electoral threat posed by Sa’ar’s announcement. Sa’ar himself acknowledged in his statement that this might happen.

Sa’ar’s new party will aim to join forces with other existing political factions before the next election, sources close to him told The Times of Israel on Tuesday.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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