Almost a year ago, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu eviscerated Gideon Sa’ar, a former Likud education minister who had long since turned against him, in a contest for the leadership of their party.
Sa’ar had argued that 2019’s two closely fought general elections, in which Netanyahu retained power only by the skin of his teeth in the face of the potent challenge of Benny Gantz’s Blue and White alliance, proved that the veteran premier was now becoming a liability to Likud and the Israeli right, and should be jettisoned ahead of the then-looming third general election. Tens of thousands of Likud members thought differently: Sa’ar won barely a quarter of the votes cast in the December 26 contest.
Netanyahu, and that big Likud majority, were vindicated just a few months later. March 2020’s election was also closely fought. Gantz was actually recommended as prime minister by 61 of the 120 MKs. But those 61 opponents of Netanyahu would not sit easily together in a coalition, and Gantz, fearing a rapid descent into yet another election, chose instead, to the horror of most of his erstwhile allies and their supporters, to help Netanyahu put together an emergency government, and to let Netanyahu stay on as prime minister, with the distant promise of his own turn at the top job starting November 2021.
Sa’ar, previously an immensely popular Likud figure who stands to Netanyahu’s right when it comes to policy on the settlements and the Palestinians, was a dead man walking in the party after his failed leadership bid, and was unsurprisingly denied a ministerial post in the current Netanyahu government. So he licked his wounds and he bided his time. On Tuesday, with yet a fourth rapid-fire election in the offing, he re-emerged to announce that he was leaving Likud, immediately resigning from the Knesset, and setting up his own party, New Hope.
Replacing Netanyahu — a man who Sa’ar charged has turned Likud into a personality cult, has failed in his handling of the pandemic, pushes domestic policies that widen the divides within Israeli society, and governs Israel through the filter of his own personal interests — is “the order of the hour,” our latest would-be prime minister declared.
A snap poll conducted immediately after Sa’ar’s fierce address to the nation will have given him new hope indeed: It suggested his party would win 17 of the Knesset’s 120 seats if elections were held today, while Likud, which holds 36 seats, was seen falling to 25. Since that poll was taken, Sa’ar has gained the support of two serving MKs — Derech Eretz’s Zvi Hauser and Yoaz Hendel — and is promising further compelling recruits.
That same poll also gave Naftali Bennett’s Yamina party 19 seats, and Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu 7 — which adds up to 43 seats in parliament for parties whose policies on settlements and the Palestinians are, if anything, to Netanyahu’s right. Forty-three seats, that is, for parties led by former close associates and allies of Netanyahu, from the same part of the political spectrum, avowedly seeking the prime minister’s ouster.
Three more polls published Wednesday evening produced broadly similar findings. All four indicate that Sa’ar, having failed to so much as dent Netanyahu’s hold on power when challenging him from within Likud last year, can constitute a major threat from without. The arrival of New Hope, those surveys show, at a stroke denies Netanyahu the Knesset majority that polls had been predicting in recent months for his “natural alliance” — Likud, Yamina and the two ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism. Given that Bennett has lately been stressing that he sees himself as Netanyahu’s successor rather than his ally, Sa’ar’s arrival means the prime minister now faces double trouble from inside his own right-wing camp.
For the first time in his prime ministerial career, in short, Netanyahu is up against opponents who can credibly argue that they can oust him without handing over power to the ideological enemies on the center-left.
Worsening the picture still more for Netanyahu were statistics published Wednesday that show the most dramatic rise in poverty levels in the history of Israel — confirmation, if that were needed, of how profoundly the pandemic has battered Israelis financially, with the weakest sectors, where Likud draws much of its support, inevitably worst hit.
Netanyahu is unlikely to be particularly fazed by an initial slew of Israel’s notoriously unreliable opinion polls, conducted hours after a fairly credible and articulate rival had delivered his political manifesto live to the nation’s living rooms. While the leaders of fresh Israeli political movements often soar in surveys at their inception, they tend to plummet, if not crash, a short time later.
But neither is the prime minister politically suicidal.
And going to elections in the near future — with Sa’ar and Bennett flying high, the COVID-19 vaccination process ongoing, and the economy still in tatters — would be pretty close to political suicide.
Hours before Sa’ar commandeered our TV screens on Tuesday night, a Knesset committee advanced the legislation for our fourth elections in less than two years, and set polling day for March 16, 2021. But the bill needs three more plenum readings to become law, and it seems hard to believe that Netanyahu will let this transpire or, similarly, let the Knesset dissolve automatically on December 23 — which is what will happen if the 2020 state budget is not approved by then.
Far more likely, you’d have to say, is that Netanyahu will henceforth amend his strategy — and facilitate the approval of both the 2020 budget and that for 2021.
Passing the 2021 budget would deprive Netanyahu of the great big loophole in his deal with his Blue and White “partner” Gantz, and would theoretically recommit him to handing over power to Gantz in November 2021 under their rotation agreement. But that’s a lifetime away in Israeli current affairs; doubtless innumerable tricks and shticks, pretexts and opportunities can be found before the day arrives.
Why might Gantz agree to such a shift by Netanyahu? Well, for two reasons. Firstly, because he has rightly been highlighting how vital it is that the budget pass, and how unthinkable it has been that Netanyahu has kept Israel without a state budget throughout 2020 and must not be allowed to do so into 2021. And secondly, because Gantz, too, will be committing political suicide if Israel goes to the polls in March. That slew of new polls put Blue and White at a pitiful six or seven seats — compared to the 33 it won in March, before Gantz split away from Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid and entered the coalition with the man he had vowed to supplant.
Netanyahu and Gantz aren’t the only two party chiefs whom Sa’ar’s arrival will be giving sleepless nights. Those polls also underline the precipitous decline of the center-left — with Labor having long since disappeared below the Knesset threshold, Meretz stuck at 6-7 seats, and Yesh Atid hovering at around 15 seats. As recently as 2015, those three parties won 40 seats — a third of the Knesset; today, those polls show, they can eke out barely half that total, a sixth of the Knesset.
When both the prime minister and the “alternate” prime minister face a battering in an election that the public deplores — and that can still be easily avoided — it stands to reason that the election will indeed be avoided, at least for a few more months.
Of course, as we all know, Israeli politics doesn’t always stand to reason. But if his breakaway ends the no-budget era and staves off elections, Gideon Sa’ar will already have done the Israeli public a service.
Whether his departure from Likud and establishment of his own party comes to be recognized as the moment when Netanyahu finally began to lose his grip on Israel, well, that’s a whole different matter.
** An earlier version of this Editor’s Note was sent out Wednesday in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the Times of Israel Community. To receive these Editor’s Notes as they’re released, join the ToI Community here.
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