Analysis: Can Gideon Saar topple Bibi?

Gideon Saar. Photo: Ziv Koren (זיו קורן), CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Gideon Saar, a former ally of Benjamin Netanyahu, said at the weekend that his new party might consider an alliance with Likud – but that the prime minister couldn’t be part of it. Formed in December, Saar’s New Hope party has soared in the polls and represents the biggest danger to Netanyahu’s chances of remaining in power after the 23 March general election.

What happened

•    The election – the fourth in under two years – was automatically triggered at the end of December when the Knesset failed to pass a budget.
•    Netanyahu is suspected of engineering the budget crisis in order to bring down the “unity government” he formed with the centrist Blue and White party last May. Under the terms of the coalition agreement, Netanyahu was due to hand the premiership to Blue and White leader Benny Gantz – who came close in three successive general elections in 2019-20 to bringing to an end his decade in power – in November. 
•    Netanyahu’s trial on multiple corruption charges will recommence in February. The prime minister had wanted the Knesset to grant him immunity while he remains in office but Gantz opposed any such move. 
•    Saar is very much a man of the right, but he accuses the prime minister of turning the Likud party into a “cult of personality” and a “tool” to serve his interests including “those related to the criminal trial”.
•    Saar has won a number of high-profile defectors from Likud and says there is “no scenario” in which he will join a Netanyahu government. New Hope is currently running second in the polls behind Likud.

The bigger picture

The election is set to be dominated by the question of Netanyahu’s fate. As David Horovitz, editor of the Times of Israel has suggested: “If our last three rapid-fire elections largely revolved around the question of whether Israelis wanted Netanyahu as our prime minister any longer — pushing to the margins what had once been core electoral issues such as the Palestinian conflict, settlements, the powers of the Supreme Court, and military service for the ultra-Orthodox — the March 2021 vote is all about whether Israelis want Netanyahu as our prime minister any longer.” 

What the polls show

According to the BICOM poll of polls, the parties opposed to Netanyahu remaining as prime minister – which range from the Israeli-Arab Joint List and Meretz on the left to Saar’s New Hope on the right – are projected to win 60 seats (one short of a majority), while Likud and it’s ultra-Orthodox and religious right allies look set to win 48 seats. 

Splintered opposition

The opposition to Netanyahu is highly splintered:

•    After he broke his pledge not to serve with Netanyahu, Gantz’s Blue and White snapped in two. Yesh Atid and its leader, Yair Lapid, remained in the opposition, while Gantz led a rump into government with Likud. Lapid’s bet looks the wiser one: Blue and White, which won 33 seats when Israelis voted last March, is now polling around four seats, while Yesh Atid has 14. Gantz’s appeals for the centre-left to unite have been angrily rebuffed in many quarters, although Lapid is keeping a door open, not least because the defence minister has access to considerable state funding based on Blue and White’s performance in March 2020.
•    The Joint List, which was the third biggest parliamentary group after the last election, is divided and losing ground in the polls. The Islamist Ra’am party is reported to be planning to pull out from the alliance of Arab nationalist, left-wing and religious parties. 

No going Barak

•    Labor, which followed Gantz into government, is in danger of failing to make it back into the Knesset, according to the polls. 
•    The veteran Labor mayor of Tel Aviv, Ron Huldai, has launched a new centre-left part, the Israelis, and pledged to defeat the country’s “crazy right-wing government”. Huldai secured the support of Blue and White justice minister Avi Nissenkorn but his suggestion that the election is a two-horse race between him and Netanyahu is belied by polls showing The Israelis only winning around five seats.
•    Amir Peretz has quit as Labor leader and won’t be standing again for the Knesset. Merav Michaeli, an MK who vociferously opposed Labor joining the government, is standing in the leadership contest due next weekend. Itzik Shmuli, who served as social welfare minister in the government, has ruled himself out as a contender.
•    Former prime minister Ehud Barak – who led the party to victory in 1999 – turned down a request from Labor’s governing board to stand in the leadership election. He cited the fractured centre-left field, arguing that a precondition of ejecting Netanyahu was a joint slate of Labor, The Israelis and Yesh Atid to be formed.

Every vote counts

•    Netanyahu is banking on the swift vaccine roll-out and the normalisation agreements with the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco to restore some of the political lustre he lost from the government’s perceived bungled handing of the pandemic. “I’m not afraid of elections,” he said after the Knesset was dissolved. “The Israeli public knows who has delivered millions [of] vaccines, four peace agreements, who is stopping Iran, who has delivered security and who is going to rehabilitate the economy with greater momentum.” 
•    But the prime minister knows he’s potentially in the political fight of his life. Nothing underlines that more clearly than his bid for the votes of Israeli-Arabs. On election day 2015, he infamously posted a video in which he warned “the Arab voters are going in droves to the polling stations.” Netanyahu now says those remarks were “twisted” by his opponents.
•    As always, Netanyahu is also heavily involved in various machinations on the right. He is said to have encouraged Bezalel Smotrich’s socially conservative National Union – rebranded as Religious Zionism – to break away from the right-wing Yamina party. He is now reportedly encouraging the far-right Otzma Yehudit party to merge with it. 

The kingmaker

Another former ally who has fallen out with Netanyahu – Yamina leader Naftali Bennett of – might hold the key to the prime minister’s fate. Despite having previously served as education and defence minister in Netanyahu-led governments, Bennett opted not to have Yamina join the “unity government”. His sharp critiques of its handling of the pandemic has seen Yamina rise in the polls. In the past, Bennett pledged he’d back Netanyahu remaining prime minister, but he’s giving no such pledge this time, instead saying of the prime minister: “We must thank him for his years of service but we must move on.” Some commentators believe that if he wins Bennett’s support, Saar may be able to assemble an ideologically heterodox coalition of parties united by one thing: their desire to see the back of Bibi. 

What happens next

•    Labour’s leadership contest takes place next Sunday (24 January). It will hold primaries for its list on Monday 1 February. Alongside the Jewish Home, Labor is the only major party to be holding primaries this year.
•    New alliances will be formed as parties jockey to ensure that – at the very least – they clear the 3.25 percent of the vote threshold needed to win seats in the Knesset.
•    The deadline for party lists to be submitted is Thursday 4 February.