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Analysis

Sa’ar steps out of Netanyahu’s shadow, and will likely cost him the premiership

Former Likud No. 2 vows not to serve with Netanyahu again, joining the swelling ranks of parliamentary leaders systematically denying the PM a clear path to retain power

Haviv Rettig Gur

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Then-Likud MK Gideon Sa'ar speaks to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in Jerusalem, February 19, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Then-Likud MK Gideon Sa'ar speaks to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in Jerusalem, February 19, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The first shipment of vaccines from Pfizer landed in Israel on Wednesday morning, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on hand at Ben Gurion Airport to welcome the flight and make sure he gets the full measure of credit for its arrival.

It’s a moment that could have signaled the beginning of a turnaround for Netanyahu’s political prospects, the start of the return of right-wing voters to his Likud party after they abandoned it in recent months in anger at the government’s handling of the pandemic.

But an hour after the plane’s arrival, Likud MK Gideon Sa’ar handed in his resignation to Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin, and set back Netanyahu’s hopes for victory by a long way.

Netanyahu was already in trouble before Sa’ar’s Tuesday announcement that he was launching his own party. Naftali Bennett’s right-wing Yamina party has been polling at between 19 and 24 seats for several months now, and Bennett is widely believed to be seeking to oust Netanyahu from power. If the polls are even close to right — if Bennett can draw even 15 seats on election day — Netanyahu will not have enough seats alone to ensure the current prime minister is also the next one.

Nor will Netanyahu have any willing partners across the aisle. After his refusal to fulfill his rotation deal with Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, it will be hard to find a political leader in the current Knesset willing to sign a similar agreement with him in the next one.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stands in front of the plane delivering the first doses of a coronavirus vaccine on December 9, 2020 (Government Press Office)

One media outlet, the radio station 103 FM, managed to commission and publish a flash poll between Sa’ar’s announcement of his new party on Tuesday at 8 p.m. and the Wednesday morning news broadcasts. Sa’ar would win a stunning 17 seats, it found.

The poll, produced by Panels Politics, showed Sa’ar’s broad appeal on the center-right. He would draw three to four seats apiece from Likud, Blue and White, centrist Yesh Atid, and rightist Yamina.

That’s bad news for Netanyahu, especially after Sa’ar openly declared on Tuesday his opposition to Netanyahu’s leadership and vowed not to serve in a government with him.

Likud had changed, said the former party no. 2, becoming “a tool for the personal interests of the person in charge” and “a cult of personality.”

“I can no longer support the Netanyahu-led government or be a member of a Likud party led by him… Today Israel needs unity and stability — Netanyahu can offer neither.”

Screen capture from video of Likud MK Gideon Sa’ar as he announced he was resigning from the party, December 8, 2020. (Channel 13 news)

That’s a more direct challenge to Netanyahu, and a more explicit vow not to serve with him, than anything Yamina leader Bennett has said in public.

All of which turns Sa’ar’s initial polling numbers into an existential political threat to Netanyahu.

According to the poll, Sa’ar, among the most popular figures in the Likud rank and file until he challenged Netanyahu’s leadership last year, moves some four seats from pro-Netanyahu Likud to an anti-Netanyahu offshoot. And while he also weakens Yamina and Yesh Atid, it is Netanyahu who cannot afford the drop.

The danger is now so acute for the prime minister that it became a matter of conventional wisdom among pundits Tuesday night that Netanyahu will look for ways to avert an election at the last minute, even if it means passing a state budget for 2020 and 2021 and being forced to hand the rotating premiership to Gantz, as promised in the agreement the two men signed back in May. Netanyahu may decide that it’s better to have a weakened Gantz polling at perhaps six seats as prime minister than allowing Bennett, Sa’ar or Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid to take the post.

Blue and White chief Benny Gantz announces he will vote to dissolve Knesset, on December 1, 2020. (Elad Malka/Blue and White)

Enemies

The tragedy for Netanyahu is that his current predicament — the dwindling ranks of those willing to join a future government under his stewardship — is entirely of his own making.

If one takes even a cursory look at the leaders of the centrist and right-leaning parties whose backing Netanyahu needs if he is to sidestep Sa’ar or Bennett and produce his future coalition, one finds a long list of people who believe they were abused and betrayed by Netanyahu over the years, and are fervently committed to his ouster.

Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman was once Netanyahu’s closest confidant and political organizer, rising to the post of director general of Netanyahu’s Prime Minister’s Office during his first term as premier in 1996. After they fell out in 1998, Liberman spent years building his own Yisrael Beytenu party in the hopes of one day merging it into Likud and returning to his old home, a goal stymied repeatedly by Netanyahu.

It was Liberman’s refusal to ever again serve with Netanyahu that denied the Likud leader his government after the April and September elections in the past year.

Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman tours Carmel Market in Tel Aviv on November 23, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Bennett, together with fellow Yamina MK Ayelet Shaked, once ran Netanyahu’s office and served as his chief of staff from 2006 to 2008, before experiencing a similar falling out. Netanyahu has spent the years since working hard to undermine Bennett at every turn. Everyone concerned, including close confidants of the prime minister, say the animus is mutual and deeply personal.

In the current Knesset, Bennett and Liberman hold a combined 12 seats between them. In every poll for the past five months, they account for 25 or more. In the past, Netanyahu wasn’t able to form a right-wing government without a seven-seat Yisrael Beytenu. He will now have to contend with a 25-seat Liberman-Bennett alliance bent on seeing him out of office.

There’s Moshe Kahlon, too, a popular former Likud minister who left the party in 2013 in frustration at Netanyahu, founded the Kulanu party, then quit politics last year when his party merged back into Likud after diminishing in the polls.

That is, Sa’ar is only the latest Likudnik to abandon the party over his disgust with its leader. Netanyahu is now surrounded by people with both personal and political grudges against him that they’re willing to take to the ballot box — and that have already cost Netanyahu any clear path to a stable government over the past two years.

Netanyahu managed to thread the needle for years, handing both Liberman and Bennett ever-increasing political prizes up to and including the Defense Ministry — after publicly declaring both unfit for the post — to keep them from abandoning him. But he also never stopped trying to undermine and humiliate them.

Then-defense minister Naftali Bennett, left, meets with IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi, second from left, Judea and Samaria Division commander Brig. Gen. Yaniv Alaluf, center, and other senior IDF officers in the West Bank on January 28, 2020. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

If Bennett draws 19 seats in the next election (never mind 24, as some recent polls have given him), no defense minister post will suffice. But it’s not clear Netanyahu has more to give. Would Bennett agree to a rotating premiership, given Netanyahu’s very recently broken commitments to Gantz? What of Sa’ar, flush with 17 seats (or, to be safe, even just 12)? What will he demand of a Netanyahu he knows he cannot trust?

Likud has 36 seats in the current Knesset, and 16 more in the two Haredi parties Shas and United Torah Judaism, which have stuck loyally by Netanyahu in recent years. That’s 52 seats reliably in Netanyahu’s corner, nine short of the minimum 61-seat parliamentary majority he needs to rule.

But that’s the outgoing Knesset. The next Knesset, according to Wednesday morning’s 103 FM poll, which is representative on this question of all polling in recent months, could see the Likud-Haredi bloc drop to just 41.

That’s less than the whopping 43 seats that right-wing anti-Netanyahu parties (Sa’ar, Yamina, Yisrael Beytenu) may get. With the center-left now led by the firmly anti-Netanyahu Lapid, Netanyahu appears to have run out of options.

Sa’ar made his move on Tuesday, announcing he will be running for prime minister in the coming race. He probably doesn’t have the numbers to win the premiership, but he will almost certainly have enough to deny it to Netanyahu.

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