Sa’ar move throws political predictions up in the air

Mr Sa’ar is joining a movement which has been gaining momentum for quite some time — the anti-Netanyahu right-wingers

December 10, 2020 09:13

Gideon Sa’ar’s announcement on Tuesday night that he was leaving Likud to lead a new right-wing party was not altogether unexpected. Having failed in his leadership challenge to Benjamin Netanyahu a year ago and not being offered a job as a minister in the new government in May, it was obvious that the best he could hope for was to remain languishing on the back-benches, while cabinet posts continue to be awarded to the prime minister’s sycophants with nowhere near his experience, skills or independent standing in the party.

And even if Mr Netanyahu were to be forced out of office by some combination of electoral or legal circumstances, he would nonetheless retain his iron grip on Likud.

In recent months, Mr Sa’ar escalated his criticism of the government’s handling of the coronavirus epidemic and with the prospect of yet another election on the horizon, he made the only logical choice for him.

To have any hope of a return to a senior cabinet position, he needs bargaining power in a future coalition and that can only be achieved by leading his own party.

“The order of the hour is to replace Netanyahu,” he said in his televised statement in which he also accused the prime minister of transforming Likud in to a “personal tool” and a “personality cult.”

In private conversations he promised that whatever the result of the next election, he would never sit again in a Netanyahu government.

The former education and interior minister only won 28 percent in last year’s leadership primary but he still has a significant following in Likud.

“We’re veterans, like Gideon. We’ve been Likudniks for decades,” said one of his loyalists.

“I haven’t decided whether to leave with him yet but with Gideon gone, it really isn’t the same Likud. It’s just the Bibi Party.”

It’s impossible to predict at this point whether the as yet unnamed party will succeed in bringing together disaffected Likudniks from the right and centrists who are prepared for anyone, even one of Likud’s most ideological hawks, if it means getting rid of Mr Netanyahu.

But Mr Sa’ar is joining a movement which has been gaining momentum for quite some time — the anti-Netanyahu right-wingers.

There’s already quite a crowded field in the right-wing opposition: Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, Naftali Bennett’s Yamina and Moshe Yaalon’s Telem, which was part of Blue and White in the last elections.

Not to mention the remnants of Blue and White under Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, occupying the centre-ground and vying for “soft-right” voters.

The main question in the next election is whether these parties can win enough votes to form an alternative coalition without Likud.

If the current dissatisfaction with Mr Netanyahu’s Covid policies endure, it could happen.

But the timing of the election is still uncertain and Mr Sa’ar’s departure could affect that. On Wednesday morning, the Knesset committee preparing the dissolution measure that passed its preliminary vote last week set a provisional date for the next election: 16 March.

The measure now has to be brought back to the Knesset in the coming weeks for its final readings. And even if that doesn’t happen, the government could fall anyway if a budget isn’t passed in two weeks.

Before Mr Sa’ar’s announcement, there didn’t seem to be much prospect of a compromise between Mr Netanyahu and Mr Gantz on a timing for the budget that would satisfy Blue and White and enable it to vote against dissolution.

That has changed now.

A new Sa’ar-led party threatens to take votes away from both their parties.

For Blue and White this could mean even pushing the party beneath the electoral threshold — and for Mr Netanyahu it would mean that, even if he could form a coalition after the election, he would almost certainly not have a majority to pass the immunity law he needs to evade his corruption case.

Postponing the election, thereby denying Mr Sa’ar his current momentum, would work well for both of them.

But if he allows the budget to go forward, Mr Netanyahu will lose his only loophole to get out of the “rotation” agreement, under which Mr Gantz is set to replace him as prime minister next November.

He is hoping to force Mr Gantz, who stands to lose either way, to agree to a new coalition agreement that postpones the “rotation.” If they fail to reach a compromise, Israel will be back at the polls in three months.

“If you had asked me on Tuesday morning if there was a chance of avoiding an election in March, I’d have said that it was about ten percent, at the most,” said one Blue and White MK.

“But now that Sa’ar is going to be running with his own party, the chances of Bibi and Benny finding an arrangement over the budget are fifty-fifty.”

December 10, 2020 09:13

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