Two lawmakers aligned with the Blue and White party announced Wednesday they would join former Likud MK Gideon’s Sa’ar’s new right-wing party in the next election, claiming that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is focused solely on his personal legal considerations and must be replaced.
The announcement from Derech Eretz lawmakers Yoaz Hendel and Zvi Hauser represented the first major acquisitions for Sa’ar’s New Hope party, which he launched Tuesday in hopes of attracting support from other disaffected Likud backers and right-wingers unhappy with Netanyahu.
“I did everything I could to form and maintain a unity government, but Netanyahu’s legal status dictates the political situation,” Hendel, who heads the two-man faction and currently serves as communications minister, said, referring to the prime minister’s ongoing trial in three separate corruption cases.
“Sa’ar is the home of all the thousands of people on the right [of the political spectrum] who are looking for an appropriate political home. Not the right of leadership worship, not of personality worship, an ideological right that believes in the integrity of the country. A responsible and statesmanlike right,” he said.
Sa’ar issued a statement welcoming the duo, and promising that other prominent figures would follow.
Sa’ar, long seen as Netanyahu’s chief rival within Likud, announced his intention to leave the party at a 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.
Hendel said that Israel “deserves a leadership that will unite us, that will see the good of the citizens before itself — in contrast to Netanyahu’s divisive leadership.”
“This government has failed at its job,” he said.
Calling for a “right-wing leadership whose self-definition is love of country and not hatred of the other, the left, the Arab, the political opponent,” Hendel said that the “Likud has become confused in the past few years while Gideon Sa’ar has not.”
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, Hauser and Hendel, who became the Derech Eretz faction, broke off together with Blue and White 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.
Speaking after Hendel, Hauser said that Sa’ar, considered a political hawk, offered a new hope to “the only candidate who can provide an alternative to Netanyahu from the right.”
Appealing to despondent Likud voters, Hauser said: “My friends, today for the first time you and all the people of the national camp have a choice. There is someone to choose from.”
At a meeting Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee earlier Wednesday, committee chairman Hauser spoke of his decades of knowing Sa’ar and praised him for his support for West Bank settlements, considered a key indicator of right-wing credentials.
Following their press conference, Sa’ar welcomed Hauser and Hendel to the new party, tweeting, “Together — and with many other good people who will join — we will bring new hope to the people of Israel and replace the government.”
In the wake of Sa’ar’s step, other names have surfaced 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.
Shortly before Hendel and Hauser’s announcement, Sa’ar reportedly spoke with Shasha-Biton about the possibility of her also joining the new party, the Walla news site reported. On Tuesday, she said she would weigh her options “in the coming days.”
On Tuesday, Ramat Gan Mayor Carmel Shama-Hacohen announced that he will support Sa’ar’s movement and sources close to senior Likud officials said that other mayors are also 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.
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 Tuesday.
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 elections were held New Hope would be the third-largest party in the Knesset.
The figures showed a key shift in the balance between Netanyahu and his allies and the rest of the parliament. 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.
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 be more inclined toward finding 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.
Stuart Winer and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.