Israeli elections on the way as Gideon Sa’ar’s new party soars in the polls

Last week, the former Likud MK launched a new right-wing party, New Hope, dedicated to removing Netanyahu from office


Unless a compromise that few now expect is reached by Tuesday at midnight, the twenty-third Knesset will be dissolved, nine months after it was sworn in, and Israel will be headed for an election, probably on March 24 - its fourth parliamentary election in just under two years.

It will be an election taking place with Israel still reeling from a third wave of Covid-19 and despite the fact that the two men who can make the compromise that will put it off, Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz, both stand to lose from it. But the entire political establishment in Israel is now all but resigned to it happening. As one minister in Mr Netanyahu’s soon-to-be-caretaker cabinet put it: “We barely had six months to come up with policies, let alone implement them - and now we’re back in the race again.”

Last week, after the by now former Likud MK Gideon Sa’ar launched his new right-wing party, New Hope, dedicated to removing Mr Netanyahu from office, it seemed for a few days that both the prime minister and his “alternate,” whose parties stand to lose seats to the new party, would be motivated to finding some middle ground. But no serious talks took place between the two sides and resentment only grew as Mr Gantz’s Blue and White tried to pass new laws against Likud’s will and Mr Netanyahu failed to consult with his defence minister before announcing the appointment of a new Mossad chief.

The official reason for the Knesset’s dissolution will be the failure to pass a budget for 2020, even though the deadline is only eight days before the year’s end. The last official budget was for 2018 and since then, due to the elections, Israel’s public finances have been on auto-pilot. The government could easily pass the budget but Blue and White are demanding that Likud honour the agreement signed between them in May and pass a budget immediately for 2021 as well. But the budget isn’t the real issue.

Mr Netanyahu has no intention of carrying out the “rotation” with Mr Gantz scheduled for November 2021 and if the 2021 budget isn’t passed by March the Knesset will be dissolved then, meaning an election in June. This would work much better for him as it would mean an election taking place after most Israelis have been vaccinated for Covid-19 and the momentum of his new challengers on the right may have dissipated. That would work for Mr Gantz as well but he cannot afford to give up on his demand for the rotation to take place on time - that would destroy his last remaining shreds of political credibility and cause his already diminished party to split further. Neither can he accept the other demand from Likud, to replace Blue and White’s justice minister Avi Nissenkorn.

Mr Nissenkorn has been a constant thorn in Mr Netanyahu’s side with his complete backing of the legal establishment, and serves as a reminder that in February the prime minister is due back in court to stand trial for bribery and fraud. But an election may not help him there -at least if the latest polls are anything to go by. His plan to finally gain the majority to pass an immunity law in the Knesset that will delay his case as long as he remains in the office will be at the mercy of his right-wing rivals, Naftali Bennett’s Yamina party and Mr Sa’ar’s New Hope. Without them, he has only Likud and the two ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, on his side and in the polls they are now winning only 50 of the 120 MKs in the next Knesset.

Since its launch, three more right-wing MKs have joined the new party and in some polls it is already the second-largest in the next Knesset, on twenty-plus seats, with Likud down to a single-digit lead. While many of its potential voters are centrists anxious simply to replace the long-serving prime minister, the polls indicate that for the first time Likud will be in a minority within the right-wing, with New Hope, Yamina, and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu together winning as many as ten more seats. Of these, only Yamina has not ruled out sitting in yet another Netanyahu government.

One prominent right-winger who has been offered a spot on New Hope’s slate was skeptical, however. “There’s the potential for an anti-Netanyahu bloc on the right taking him down but no-one understands his base better than Bibi and he hasn’t even begun campaigning.”

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