The rivals on the right: Why the new election will be much tougher for Netanyahu

The PM managed to topple the government without handing Gantz his promised rotation, but Sa’ar and Bennett would never have trusted him, and their anti-Bibi camp is rising

Haviv Rettig Gur

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seen during an election campaign tour in the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on April 8, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seen during an election campaign tour in the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on April 8, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The Knesset dissolved at midnight, triggering automatic elections in exactly 90 days’ time, on March 23, 2021. It will be the fourth snap election in less than two years.

The general consensus is that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has won the day. By enticing rival Benny Gantz into a unity government after three indecisive elections, Netanyahu shattered his opponent’s broad center-left alliance and then spent the months since wriggling his way out of their rotation agreement.

Gantz has emphatically lost. The once-powerful Blue and White alliance has dropped from 35 seats in April 2019 to scarcely six in this month’s polls. Once seen as the “most fitting” candidate for prime minister by some 40% of the country, Gantz couldn’t muster more than 4% in a Monday poll by Channel 12 that asked the same question.

But though Gantz has lost, that doesn’t mean Netanyahu has won. In a bitter irony for Netanyahu, his path to outright victory has only grown more difficult with Gantz’s collapse.

Volunteers sort election posters bearing the portrait of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at the Likud party’s electoral campaign headquarters in Tel Aviv on March 2, 2020. (Jack Guez/AFP)

Losing the right

If one thinks of the four elections held between April 2019 and March 2021 not as four distinct political events but as a single, long-running contest, Netanyahu’s situation appears to have worsened this week.

Over the last three races, he led a Likud list that won between 32 and 36 seats at the ballot box. Likud now polls around 28.

Far more importantly, the diverse but vehemently anti-Netanyahu coalition once led by Gantz had struggled to clear the 61-seat threshold for a parliamentary majority. Over the past two weeks, by contrast, those parties that declare themselves opposed to Netanyahu’s continued rule are polling at close to 80 seats.

All the major news outlets conducted polls on Tuesday after it became clear that the 23rd Knesset would be dissolving by midnight. All found that there may be a slim anti-Netanyahu majority on the center-right, which won’t require left-wing and Arab-majority parties to survive.

That’s a dangerous seachange for Netanyahu.

Gideon Sa’ar visiting Hadassah Hospital Ein Kerem in Jerusalem on December 16, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

According to the poll from the Kan public broadcaster, a coalition consisting of Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope party, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, Naftali Bennett’s Yamina, Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu and Gantz’s Blue and White — all leaders eager to see Netanyahu ousted — nets 60 seats, just one short of a parliamentary majority. Channel 12 gives that same alliance 59.

Add Meretz and the Arab-majority parties to the mix, even just as outside supporting votes, and the anti-Netanyahu wing of the Knesset now polls at 75-77 seats.

Reaping what you sow

Those numbers should be enough to give even the confident, experienced Netanyahu pause.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu votes in the Knesset, December 21, 2020 (Knesset channel screenshot)

But Netanyahu has another problem: none of the party leaders he will need to entice back to his camp to win the election believe he will keep his promises.

If the results on election day even remotely mirror the current polls, Netanyahu’s only hope of leading the next government will be to convince Bennett to join with him and his Haredi allies. That’s a very big “if.” Netanyahu openly despises Bennett and is openly despised by him in turn. Bennett speaks openly about his goal of ousting the longtime premier.

But even if both men can swallow that bitter pill, a Netanyahu-led Likud-Haredi-Yamina coalition gets just 58 seats in both polls. Netanyahu still needs Sa’ar.

And if, as the polls currently predict, Sa’ar will garner between 18 and 20 seats, the former Likud minister will inevitably demand a rotation agreement for prime minister.

And here Netanyahu’s dishonesty problem becomes decisive. After his unceremonious and scarcely concealed abandonment of his commitments to Gantz, no Israeli politician will agree to go second in any rotation deal.

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

Netanyahu’s reputation for dishonesty has severely limited his ability to strike the deals that may save him. To stay in power after March, he must win outright. It is no longer enough to fight his opponents to a draw, as he did over the last three races.

The right has grown in the polls compared to last year. Parties that self-identify as right-wing (including the Haredi factions) now account for roughly 80 Knesset seats. Yet the anti-Netanyahu camp has grown too. The divide over Netanyahu no longer tracks the left-right divide.

A new, weaker champion

And the main beneficiary of that trend is Netanyahu’s most powerful right-wing challenger, Gideon Sa’ar.

Last year, a Channel 12 poll asked respondents which candidate was the “most fitting” to be prime minister, Netanyahu or Gantz. Netanyahu got 40%, Gantz 38%.

Then-MKs Gideon Sa’ar, right, and Naftali Bennett in the Knesset plenum on February 24, 2014. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Tuesday’s Kan poll asked the same question, replacing Gantz with Sa’ar. Netanyahu got 39%, Sa’ar 36%.

Netanyahu’s support has held firm, but Sa’ar’s is the more interesting figure. Compare the Kan two-person poll with the response on Tuesday to Channel 12’s version of the question, which offered respondents five possible names. Netanyahu led the pack with a comfortable 33%, followed by Sa’ar at 16%, Lapid at 12%, Bennett at 8%, and Gantz at 4%.

It’s no longer news that Gantz has dropped 34 points over the past year in perceived “fitness” to be prime minister. What’s fascinating is that Sa’ar wins 16% in a crowded field, but 36% facing Netanyahu alone. Anti-Netanyahu voters have found their new champion.

There’s just one problem, polls show: They only plan to give that new champion some 18-20 seats.

Round five?

It’s been clear for at least a month that Israel is headed to an election.

Knesset members shout at each other after a bill that might have staved off elections is defeated, December 21, 2020 (Knesset channel screenshot)

The major political parties did not believe the Knesset would survive Tuesday’s budget deadline. Political campaigns have been hiring staff, polling furiously, and launching new social media initiatives. The Central Elections Committee published job ads for ballot station staffers fully a week before the Knesset actually dissolved.

With the polls as they are, it may be wise for all concerned, campaign staffers and ballot station crew alike, not to disband too quickly after March 23. Ironically, perhaps maddeningly, Gantz’s implosion has only pushed a decisive victory further out of the reach of any side. We’ll likely be needing those staffers once more for a fifth snap election in August.

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