Gideon Sa’ar is the man who would have been king

POLITICAL AFFAIRS: When he left the Likud in December to form the New Hope Party from which he hoped to unseat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, pollsters initially gave him 20 seats.

NEW HOPE party leader Gideon Sa’ar – he never developed a platform that would draw centrist voters in.  (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
NEW HOPE party leader Gideon Sa’ar – he never developed a platform that would draw centrist voters in.
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
When he left the Likud in December to form the New Hope Party from which he hoped to unseat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, pollsters initially gave him 20 seats or more at a time when Netanyahu’s numbers were nose-diving.
He was the first new major politician to rise from a political field already fatigued by three past elections who gave the appearance of successfully challenging Netanyahu for the premiership in the fourth campaign go-around.
It was a role that Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz of the Blue and White Party had played for three elections straight, before joining ranks to form a government with Netanyahu in March, thereby taking himself out of credible contention for the role of chief political rival.
But as the race continued, Sa’ar slid into third place behind Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid; and toward the end of the campaign, his support fell behind that of Yamina Party head Naftali Bennett.
Seemingly oblivious to the flagging polls, Sa’ar insisted that he was a prime ministerial contender, without ever fully explaining how the electoral math would work out in his favor.
With just one day to go, sources in his campaign still spoke of internal polls that showed how Sa’ar was more popular than he seemed.
Netanyahu’s other chief right-wing rival, Bennett, also did less well than expected, receiving only seven mandates on Election Day, less than half of his anticipated results.
But he finished with 6% of the votes, a showing that placed him in the fifth-most popular spot out of 13 contending parties.
The slide down with Sa’ar, who had been named by Bloomberg as one of eight people to watch in 2021, and who had been interviewed by CNN as Israel’s next potential leader, was even greater. He received only six mandates, with 4.7% of the vote, making him the third-lowest vote-getter in the race.
IN THE cold light of day, after results from Tuesday’s elections were tallied, a source in his campaign said that, clearly, the party had not succeeded in “getting our message out.”
Pundits have been quick to explain that beyond voters falling prey to Netanyahu’s master campaign strategy and magnetism, there were a few other problems in place, including Sa’ar’s lack of charisma. With his stiff posture and three-piece suits, he looked more like an accountant than a politician who could move minds and hearts.
Political analyst Tom Wegner, CEO of Wegner Strategy and PR, who formally worked on Amir Peretz’s 2009 campaign, said that the polling numbers with regard to Sa’ar were skewed from the start because the information was overfocused on right-wing voters, where the ambiguity was less, whereas the larger number of undecided voters were on the Center and the Left.
“More than ever, Israelis were hesitating until the last minute, and the majority of the [undecided voters] were Center and Left,” he said. When they did choose a candidate, they went with the left-wing Labor Party and the centrist Blue and White and Yesh Atid parties but not with Sa’ar, he said.
Pundits had three criticisms of Sa’ar – firstly that he was not able to maintain an even buzz of interest throughout the campaign, and did not effectively galvanize media attention so as to be placed in the middle of the daily news agenda.
Often when the nightly news spoke of politics, it did not focus on him, explained political strategist Ayelet Frish, who owns Frish Strategy Consulting, and who had formally worked as a chief strategist for former president Shimon Peres.
Wegner said that “Sa’ar started on the right foot, with a good rhythm.”
Two former Likud ministers, Yifat Shasha-Biton and Ze’ev Elkin, a former Netanyahu confidant, joined his party, creating a buzz and the appearance that more Likud defections were to follow.
It made Sa’ar seem as if he was the vanguard of a trend, and speculation was high with regard to who would be next.
But he was not able to keep up the momentum, and as the campaign continued, the initial buzz and energy around his candidacy began to die down, Wegner explained.
“Others became more interesting,” Wegner said.
Netanyahu, his chief rival, was able to more effectively generate public interest with his globally renowned vaccine program and talk of his diplomatic achievements, such as the normalization deals and visiting dignitaries.
Secondly, pundits said, his message was more about wanting to oust Netanyahu than about promoting his own neo-Likud message. Rather than effectively explaining why his party was the home of the new Right, he spent time on talking about how he was “not Bibi.”
Sa’ar never explained to right-wing voters why he was the “new Likud,” nor did he maximize the assets he had that would have drawn them into the party, Frish said.
Bennie Begin, the son of the father of the Likud Party, Menachem Begin, joined New Hope, but then he disappeared politically, she said.
“Did you ever see him [Begin]? I didn’t,” Frish said.
Sa’ar bet that most people in the Likud were, like him, fed up with Bibi, so he never promoted his platform in a way that made him more compelling than Netanyahu to the satisfied Likud voter.
Thirdly he did not do enough to court centrist voters. To centrist and leftist voters who did not want Netanyahu, Sa’ar should have more clearly explained that Netanyahu could be defeated from the Right more easily than from the Center and Left, one pundit explained.
When he first opened his campaign, Frish said, centrist voters were initially drawn to him before they realized that the initial impression he gave that he was a centrist was fake. He never promoted elements of his platform that would have drawn them in, nor did he brand his party as one that was broad and multifaceted.
Sa’ar focused on signing up right-wing personalities, but not centrist ones who would have drawn the centrist voters needed to shore up the party so it would become one of 20 or more seats, she said.
“It was all Right, Right, Right and people from the settlements,” Frish said.
Centrist voters needed to grow the party looked at its face and didn’t see anyone that represented them, she said.
Those centrist voters who initially supported him returned to their natural political homes, including Blue and White, Labor and Yesh Atid, Frish said.
In the end, Sa’ar ran a campaign that would attract only those Likud voters who no longer wanted Netanyahu, Wegner said. When the results were counted, that is what he received.
“That was his basic ticket,” Wegner said.