Analysis: How Gideon Sa'ar pricked Yair Lapid's balloon

The basis for Yesh Atid coming to power is the assumption that Netanyahu's successor as head of Likud will decide to take the party into a Lapid-led government.

Yair Lapid (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Yair Lapid
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Popular interior minister Gideon Sa’ar shocked the crowd when he announced that he was taking a break from politics, in a well-attended holiday toast he hosted at Ramat Gan’s Kfar Hamaccabiah Hotel in September 2014.
But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu already paved the way for the departure of his No. 2 in the Likud a year and a half earlier, when he decided to demote Sa’ar by leaving him out of his security cabinet. That move to stifle potential competition before they can pose a serious threat is typical for Netanyahu, as Silvan Shalom, Gilad Erdan, Moshe Kahlon and Israel Katz can confirm.
Sa’ar grew increasingly frustrated as Israel made key decisions on security and then embarked on an operation in Gaza, in which he was left in the dark.
In his departure speech, Sa’ar revealed that he had actually already decided to leave months earlier, but he decided to stay in order to chair the election campaign of President Reuven Rivlin.
Rivlin knows he owes his victory to Sa’ar, who helped him overcome several challengers, tough odds, and Netanyahu and Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman doing everything possible to persuade MKs to vote against him and ensure his defeat. The fact that Rivlin owes Sa’ar a huge favor could come in handy in the future.
It is likely that Netanyahu’s successor will be decided by Rivlin, who was elected to a seven-year term in June 2014. No one knows when that will take place. It could happen sooner, due to Netanyahu’s criminal investigations, or later - two elections from now.
Right now, the polls are smiling on Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, whose party has passed the Likud in almost every recent survey and is even approaching 30 Knesset seats in some of them. Based on those polls, Politico profiled Lapid last month under the headline “The man who could beat Bibi.” The polls even show Yesh Atid could beat the Likud by five seats.
But would that guarantee that Rivlin would appoint Lapid to form the next government? That depends, because it would be very hard for Lapid to build a coalition.
Lapid has already ruled out forming a government with Meretz and the Joint List, which he unaffectionately called “the Zoabis.” Shas and United Torah Judaism have said unequivocally that they would not enable Yesh Atid to become in charge of the country.
The coalition Lapid says he wants to form may be the only one he could get: Yesh Atid, the Likud, the Zionist Union, and Kulanu, if it still exists.
It is a dream government for many, because it excludes the extreme Right and Left and both haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties.
But it might end up remaining just that – a dream – thanks in part to a statement Sa’ar made at the end of his first print interview since his political comeback, in Monday’s Jerusalem Post.
Lapid’s hopes of forming a government with the Likud do not include Netanyahu. If Netanyahu loses an election, he is going home.
The basis for Yesh Atid coming to power is the assumption that Netanyahu’s successor as head of the Likud will decide to take the party into a Lapidled government. It is a logical assumption, because Lapid, unlike Netanyahu, will be generous with portfolios, and the prime minister’s successor as head of the Likud will need to build his résumé by becoming foreign minister or minister of defense.
The polls in the Likud show consistently that Sa’ar has the best chance of winning the race to succeed Netanyahu and becoming just the fifth leader in the party’s history. Will Sa’ar decide to put his CV ahead of the good of the party? No, he said in the interview.
“I don’t believe in Lapid’s path, and ideology is what matters,” he said.
“The Likud must lead, and Lapid, like others, cannot be ruled out as a partner for us. It is healthy for the Likud to either be in power or in the opposition.”
If Sa’ar would not join a Yesh Atid-led government, the possibility of Lapid – or anyone else who is not in the Likud – forming a government becomes a lot less likely. After all, the only reason Zionist Union and Meretz voters now back Yesh Atid is that they believe Lapid could best the Likud.
And the chances increase of the next government being formed by Sa’ar, who has that favor from Rivlin waiting for him.
If that happens, not only could Sa’ar be in the next security cabinet, he could end up forming it as prime minister.