VIEWPOINT: Sa’ar versus Netanyahu

I feel bad that years ago I suggested to Netanyahu’s coalition partners in a Hebrew outlet a scenario resembling what Sa’ar is accused of concocting.

Gideon Sa’ar: Might he join Bayit Yehudi? (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Gideon Sa’ar: Might he join Bayit Yehudi?
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
I HAVE previously praised Gideon Sa’ar as a worthy contender for the Likud leadership while emphasizing his right and that of others to challenge Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the top job. Competition is healthy provided the voting results are respected and the elected leader does not have to immediately watch his back as often occurs in the Israeli Labor Party Sa’ar has empathetically declared that he will defer his prime ministerial aspirations to the post-Netanyahu era but these protestations did not ward off Netanyahu’s suspicions and he publicly shamed Sa’ar as a putschist who was aided and abetted by President Reuven Rivlin.
I feel bad that years ago I suggested to Netanyahu’s coalition partners in a Hebrew outlet a scenario resembling what Sa’ar is accused of concocting. This was the 1963 Konrad Adenauer scenario when the German Free Democratic Party which held the balance of power announced that it would continue to support a Christian Democratic chancellor but it could no longer be Der Alte Adenauer, who had become autocratic and whose government was under a cloud following a security agency break-in to the editorial offices of Der Spiegel. The FDP got its way but the CDU was split leading to its eventual loss of power in 1969, while the FDP incurred enmity inside the CDU. Therefore, such a maneuver, while possible, is risky for all sides. I specifically did not envision a scenario where a Likud member would set this in motion but as an option for the Likud’s coalition partners, who would take a card from the FDP.
Now that Netanyahu, however, unjustly has fingered Sa’ar as a lowlife who would ride Netanyahu’s coattails to a Likud victory and then help ditch him, his situation in Likud is precarious. In today’s circumstances, where Netanyahu is revered as a demigod, Sa’ar’s chances for a triumphant return from his political time out by securing a top slot on the Likud list of Knesset candidates has become most problematic. Netanyahu is effectively telling the Likud primary voter it is me or Sa’ar. If despite Netanyahu’s accusations Sa’ar finished in the top ten, it would be a blow to Netanyahu and today’s Likud is not going to buck its leader especially if it feels overly confident of ending up in the winners’ circle. Before the last primaries, Netanyahu quietly put out the word to blacklist MK Moshe Feiglin and Feiglin was toast.
What are Sa’ar’s options? He could continue to fight the good fight by remaining in the Likud. This tactic will be barren because without a senior ministry appointment, he will not retain his backers in the Likud who will gravitate to the bigger fishes. The only way things could turn around is if sudden political disaster strikes the Likud and the party will summon Sa’ar from the political wilderness back to leadership. This route is long-term and iffy.
Sa’ar could go the independent party route and form his own party. It has happened before on both the left and the right with schism-reunion-schism etc. But this raises the question of market saturation.
Can the market bear another Likud refugee party after Avigdor Liberman, Moshe Kahlon and possibly former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon? Even Orly Levy’s party that is polling well can also be viewed given her lineage as a spinoff from Likud.
It would, therefore, be advisable for Sa’ar to join an existing party but which? Labor and Lapid are too left. Avigdor Liberman and Sa’ar have no connection and he would merely serve as ornamentation on an essentially one-man show. Moshe Kahlon and Sa’ar differ on their view of the Supreme Court that was one of Sa’ar’s signature issues as justice minister.
This leaves Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home) as a fit for Sa’ar. If Sa’ar were assigned a guaranteed slot on the Bayit Yehudi list – a power that Bennett as party chairman commands – it could be a game changer. Things will not go smoothly. Bennett would have to ward off renewed criticism within his party that he is transforming his party into a Likud clone. Current party MKs would resent being leapfrogged by Sa’ar. Sa’ar in turn would have to resign himself to the fact that he would be No. 3 at best, after Bennett and Ayelet Shaked.
However, the possible benefits make the gamble worthwhile. Sa’ar can at best hope to be a backbencher in Likud. If he could help bump up Bayit Yehudi to 12-15 seats, he would be guaranteed an important ministry and remain in the public consciousness. Bayit Yehudi, which has looked for star power, will get a more substantial addition than Eli Ohana or Yinon Magal. Sa’ar who has been moving closer to tradition is precisely the person to help Bayit Yehudi broaden its base to the vast reservoir of masorati (conservative) voters, who now gravitate to Likud.
Bennett needs a double-digit Knesset representation in the next elections to keep his grip on the party and have a shot at the defense ministry that Netanyahu promised him and then reneged upon. Bennett did a fine job as education minister but the road to the Prime Minister’s Office passes through the defense ministry. Adding Sa’ar to the list can help Bennett get the defense portfolio.
Bennett and Sa’ar have compatible views and together they can show that a credible alternative to Netanyahu exists on the right.