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Poll shows Sa’ar’s new party gaining more ground, closing in on Likud

Netanyahu rival said boosted by addition of rebel Likud MK Shasha-Biton, at expense of Yamina and Blue and White; results show no clear path to government

Then-Likud MK Gideon Sa'ar during a Knesset plenary session debate on MK Haim Katz's request for parliamentary immunity from prosecution, February 20, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Then-Likud MK Gideon Sa'ar during a Knesset plenary session debate on MK Haim Katz's request for parliamentary immunity from prosecution, February 20, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Gideon Sa’ar’s new party is enjoying a significant boost in popularity, according to a poll released Tuesday, less than a week after the former Likud MK announced his decision to break away from the ruling party to challenge Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the premiership.

The Channel 12 survey showed Sa’ar’s New Hope party scoring just six Knesset seats fewer than Likud, while fellow right-wing rival Naftali Bennett’s Yamina and Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s Blue and White both lose ground.

The New Hope party would receive 21 seats in the 120-member parliament, according to the poll, which was conducted before renegade Likud MK Yifat Shasha-Biton announced her plan to join the party, but asked respondents about a scenario in which she was on Sa’ar’s ticket.

The poll predicted 27 seats for Likud, 14 for Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid-Telem, 13 for Yamina, 11 for the Joint List, 8 each for the Haredi Shas and United Torah Judaism parties, and 6 each for Blue and White, Yisrael Beytenu and Meretz.

MK Yifat Shasha-Biton visits the coronavirus ward at Ziv Medical Center in the northern city of Safed, on December 3, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)

If proven correct, the poll would mean the path to any party forming a new government would be rather difficult, as the right-wing and religious parties of Likud, Yamina, Shas and UTJ would only make up 56 seats and a center-right bloc of New Hope, Yamina, Yisrael Beytenu, Blue and White and Yesh Atid-Telem would combine for 60. Sixty-one seats are needed to form a coalition.

If the highly sought after ex-IDF chief Gadi Eisenkot joined Sa’ar’s party, it would only receive one extra seat, the poll indicated.

Asked who they deemed most fitting to be prime minister, 33% of respondents said Netanyahu, 18% said Sa’ar, 9% said Bennett, 8% said Lapid, and 7% said Gantz. Another 18% said none of the men were fit for the role and 7% said they didn’t know.

The combined phone and online poll surveyed 501 respondents constituting a representative sample of Israeli adults. The margin of error was 4.4%.

On her Twitter account earlier Tuesday, Shasha-Biton announced her move by sharing a graphic of her and Sa’ar, with the caption “We’ve set out on our way.” Hebrew media reports indicated she will be No. 2 on Sa’ar’s New Hope slate.

With the announcement, Shasha-Biton became the third serving Knesset member to join Sa’ar, following Derech Eretz MKs Zvi Hauser and Yoaz Hendel. Sa’ar himself quit Likud last week after unveiling his intention to challenge Netanyahu.

Shasha-Biton entered the Knesset in 2015 as a member of former finance minister Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party, which was absorbed into Likud last year.

Following the formation of a new government in May, Shasha-Biton was named chairwoman of the Knesset’s Coronavirus Committee, where she earned popular acclaim for overturning and criticizing a number of the government’s coronavirus restrictions.

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

Her decision to buck the prime minister also raised hackles from Netanyahu and his allies, who later stripped the committee of its power to overturn government rules.

Shasha-Biton was reportedly courted by Yamina party leader Bennett, another right-wing rival of Netanyahu who has enjoyed soaring support in the polls for his criticism of the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic — until Sa’ar’s newly-formed party chipped away at his strength in the polls.

Netanyahu could form a government if Sa’ar’s party were to join him, but the prime minister’s arch-rival claims to have no such plans. Though others have vowed not to sit with Netanyahu in the past only to reverse course, the enmity between the two runs deep, and Sa’ar’s fiery critique of the premier last week would appear to make such an eventuality unlikely.

Netanyahu had flirted with new elections ever since entering into a coalition with Blue and White in May.

Many surveys in the coalition’s early months showed Netanyahu’s bloc easily winning 65 going on 70 seats. That kind of result would allow Netnayahu to pursue his agenda unhindered by centrists. It would also potentially enable him to pursue legislation to protect him from the criminal charges for which he now stands trial. (Though the prime minister has vehemently denied planning such legislation if it were politically possible, few commentators have taken him at his word).

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seen during a vote at the Knesset, in Jerusalem on August 24, 2020. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90)

But recent months have seen Netanyahu’s power in the polls erode. Though his bloc continued to enjoy a majority in surveys, Bennett’s Yamina shot up as his criticism of the government he was no longer a part of grew, and he and his party increasingly said it was time Netanyahu was replaced as Israel’s leader.

Still, there seemed to be no feasible combination of parties that could form a government without Likud, giving Netanyahu leverage — but Sa’ar’s entry into the race may have changed that.

Shasha-Biton’s decision to join with Sa’ar came as the Knesset appeared on course to dissolve, with Blue and White pushing a bill to call early elections. Likud was seeking to prevent the further advancement of the bill, which was slated to come up for a first Knesset reading on Tuesday but was subsequently postponed until next week.

If elections are called, the fourth in under two years, they will likely be held in March.

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