On Tuesday, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s longtime Likud bête noir Gideon Sa’ar announced that he is breaking away from his political home and forming a new party to challenge Netanyahu’s continued rule. Sa’ar has very obviously and publicly chafed under Netanyahu, leaving politics in 2014 reputedly due to friction with the prime minister and unsuccessfully challenging Netanyahu for the Likud leadership after the second 2019 Knesset election last September following his return. Despite finishing fifth in the Likud primary, Netanyahu did not appoint him to the current cabinet or give him a committee chairmanship, choosing instead to humiliate him by relegating him to the Knesset backbenches. It is thus not entirely surprising, even if the timing was unexpected, that Sa’ar finally decided that enough was enough. In his speech on Tuesday, Sa’ar was explicit that his main platform position is that Netanyahu has to go.
While Sa’ar’s stated intentions are clear, what comes next is less so. The obvious immediate reaction is that Netanyahu is the big loser in this exchange. The Likud MK who has sustained high popularity within the party for the longest time alongside Netanyahu and been most willing to speak up against him has broken free of his last restraints, and he may take other Likud MKs with him. This will be viewed as yet another chink in Netanyahu’s previously impenetrable armor, and much of the image as Israel’s irreplaceable and indispensable leader that he has assiduously cultivated depends on his being seen as invincible. Perhaps most saliently, if Sa’ar is able to draw a non-trivial number of seats for his Tikva Hadasha (New Hope) party from Likud, Netanyahu will be down to a right-wing pro-Bibi group that will reliably include only Likud and the Haredi parties and fall well short of a Knesset majority without some major wrangling and maneuvering.
Despite this, I think the biggest loser in the aftermath of Sa’ar’s move is not Netanyahu but Naftali Bennett. Bennett’s Yamina party has rocketed upwards in the polls since Netanyahu formed the current unity government without it, largely on the basis of Bennett working hard to be viewed by Israelis as the most credible voice of reason on how to combat coronavirus. While Sa’ar will draw some Likud support, I see it as more likely that he drastically cuts into Bennett’s share of the vote. Sa’ar and Bennett have similar political and ideological profiles; they are both farther right than Netanyahu on West Bank territorial issues and champion annexation without reservation but are more moderate than Netanyahu on social issues and on the need to respect state institutions. They are both seen as leaders who are comfortable and accommodating of religious parties and voters but who are not in thrall to the Haredi parties. Like Tzvi Hauser and Yoaz Hendel, the chronically restless Derech Eretz duo who are unable to stay in any single place for more than a split second and who announced yesterday that they are joining up with Sa’ar, both Sa’ar and Bennett claim the mantle of the sane and stately right and hope to project a pragmatic image, whether or not it is warranted. The voters who have gravitated to Bennett, either because they view him as credible in the current crisis, because they like their far right-wing policies to be cloaked in more moderate language, or because they are fed up with Netanyahu are the same voters who will view Sa’ar positively.
Sa’ar’s entry into the ring may also extend Netanyahu’s political lifespan by stabilizing the current government just as it is tottering on the cliff’s edge. The thrust of the past month has been Benny Gantz’s newly discovered ability and willingness to make threats without immediately folding, which has led to his insistence that the December 23 deadline to pass a budget – without which the Knesset automatically dissolves – actually remain the deadline. Netanyahu seems to have been resigned to this happening, as he was counting on Gantz’s Kahol Lavan party to be a non-factor after new elections and thus get to form a new coalition in which he does not have to contemplate turning the premiership over to Gantz in November of next year. Now, however, Netanyahu has to determine what is the bigger threat; going to elections now with Sa’ar potentially driving down his margins even further, or caving to Gantz on a budget agreement and buying some more time to figure out a way of wiggling out of the prime ministerial rotation. The advantage to the latter move for Netanyahu is that Sa’ar has resigned his Knesset seat, so the longer elections can be pushed off, the longer Sa’ar is relegated to the sidelines. It raises the question of why Sa’ar made his announcement now rather than waiting until December 23 with the benefit of seeing precisely when elections would occur.
It is also difficult to take Sa’ar’s anti-Netanyahu rebellion at face value divorced of all recent political context, because we have seen this movie before. The last person to take Israeli politics by storm with the formation of a new party whose animating principle was to remove Netanyahu from Balfour Street was Gantz. He too pledged not to sit with Netanyahu, to protect the state’s core institutions from Netanyahu’s rapaciousness, to advance a saner politics attentive to the needs of ordinary Israelis, and eventually paved the way for Netanyahu’s continued presence in the prime minister’s office with all sorts of justifications for why it was necessary and why he had no choice and how this was actually a fulfillment of his promises save the one about Netanyahu personally. Imagine the plausible scenario in which Sa’ar has to wait the better part of a year for elections, all while no longer having a Knesset platform or a party with any Knesset seats, spends his time warding off attacks from Netanyahu and Likud while his popularity plummets, and then finishes fifth or sixth at best and is no more a candidate for prime minister than I am. Raise your hand if you unhesitatingly think he will choose to be a perpetually glum opposition MK rather than take whatever high profile ministry Netanyahu dangles in front of him, against the backdrop of a constant public relations campaign warning that Sa’ar is threatening the primacy of right-wing governments through his obstinate anti-Netanyahu stance. Furthermore, imagine that Netanyahu is using the exact same script with Bennett, and it is clear that whoever says yes first will get the spoils while the other is left out in the cold. Netanyahu is going to be in a tight position, but he will also be dealing with a set of opponents who are themselves rivals and who will face the same problem Gantz faced in potentially having to choose between joining Netanyahu or joining with the Joint List. The clarity of purpose that Sa’ar demonstrated yesterday will be far harder to maintain when decisions have to be made.
Finally, Sa’ar got his diagnosis absolutely right on Tuesday, but he does not necessarily have the correct prescription. He slammed the current iteration of Likud as a personality cult that is slavishly devoted to Netanyahu in the face of anything and everything and that is bringing the country down with it. His approach is to thus capitalize on Israel’s general right of center politics and his own right-wing bonafides to show Netanyahu the door. But in recognizing the hold that Netanyahu has over his political camp, Sa’ar misses that the ideological right-left dynamic is actually no longer applicable. This is where being an American political analyst provides a distinct advantage, since the situation here with President Trump is a similar one. The actual positions that Trump takes or the behavior he exhibits do not matter in evaluating what is right or left; all that matters is whether one supports Trump’s positions or not. What he says becomes the right-wing position, no matter how heterodox it may be to traditional conservative or Republican ideology, and to oppose him means that you are automatically a RINO and not a real conservative. What Sa’ar is going to quickly learn is that for many voters, Netanyahu – and not what he actually says or does – is the right-wing, and thus opposing him makes Sa’ar automatically left-wing irrespective of his positions on anything. The Haredi parties already understand this, which is why Sa’ar and Bennett can promise them the sun, moon, and stars to no avail if it means Aryeh Deri has to turn his back on the man who is literally featured in Shas ads despite being a Likud prime minister.
The only way in which Sa’ar plausibly accomplishes his goal of replacing Netanyahu is if he is able to form a right-wing, socially moderate, anti-Netanyahu coalition with Bennett, Avigdor Liberman, and Yair Lapid, which will probably work out numbers-wise but will involve enormous clashes of both policy and personality. When all of the bouncing balls finally land, whether that be in three months or one year, we will have a better idea of whether or not this is possible. In the meantime, Israeli politics continues to be more engrossing than any television political drama you will ever stream.