Gideon Sa’ar’s new party could signal a Netanyahu ouster - analysis

A shift in Israel's voting pattern could allow a loss for Netanyahu.

Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset in Jerusalem (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset in Jerusalem
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
Gideon Sa’ar’s dramatic departure from the Likud has opened the door to the sudden possibility that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could be unseated as the country’s leader after 11 years, should Israel head to its fourth election.
Not because Gideon Sa’ar and his new party have a chance of beating Netanyahu when it comes to the most votes. It is likely Sa’ar won’t outdo Netanyahu in a popularity contest.
Polls published in the immediate aftermath of the announcement, however, point to a possible significant shift in Israel’s voting pattern, which could allow for a Netanyahu loss, even if he continues to receive the most votes.
The almost total elimination of the Israeli Left, down to a mere six seats, in favor of centrist and right-wing parties, has created the possibility of a coalition built of secular based Center and Right parties that could by-pass Netanyahu.
A KAN News poll published Wednesday night, showed a Right and Center bloc had grown to 88, but the Likud itself has shrunk to 25 seats. Without the Likud that Right-Center bloc would have 63 seats, enough for a coalition.
It’s the first time since Netanyahu came into power in 2009, that a Right-Center bloc could form a coalition, without the Likud and without the Haredi parties. The latter have been one of the pillars that have kept Netanyahu in power.
In a way, it’s the kind of Center-Right voting map that Yisrael Beytenu head MK Avigdor Liberman has long dreamed of. It’s just that he always imagined that he and not Sa’ar would be the one to lead this particular revolution.
According to the KAN poll, 18 seats would go to Sa’ar’s right-wing party, 17 to MK Naftali Bennett’s Yamina party, 15 to MK Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid-Telem Party, seven to Alternative Prime Minister Benny Gantz’s Blue and White Party and six to Liberman.
Should either Sa’ar, Bennett or Lapid secure a second place showing, they could by-pass Netanyahu, who would have a harder time forming a coalition based on this break out.
It’s even possible that if Sa’ar, Lapid or Bennett come in first, Netanyahu would not even have a chance to form a coalition.
It’s a scenario that would not have been possible in 2015, when the combination of Right-Center parties with the Likud, but without the Haredi parties, garnered only 65 votes.
Four years later, the Right and Center bloc parties, with the Likud had grown. In the April 2019 election, such a bloc received 84 combined seats, in the September 2019 election it had 80 seats and in March 2020, it came in at 83.
But each time, those numbers dropped to below 61, when one removed the Likud from the mix, thereby making the Netanyahu led Likud essential for any coalition that involved the Right.
It was an equation Netanyahu counted on. He has long sought a large right-wing party with himself as its head, as the best and most efficient way of government, particularly given that it would broker little dissent.
There is nothing Netanyahu likes less, to be dictated to and hemmed in by his coalition partners.
Given that he has not been able to create a very large Likud, akin to the over 40 seat type of parties that once dominated the Israeli landscape, Netanyahu has branded himself as the only natural head of a Right-wing bloc. His popularity and the fact that he has been one of the top two vote getters for eleven years has made that a reality.
Only the top two vote getters are given a shot at forming a 61-member or more coalition. No right-wing politician is likely to best Netanyahu in a popularity contest. Since it's presumed that the only other politician in the top two slots would be a Left or Center-Left candidate, then Netanyahu would automatically always be the leader of the Right.
This formula has been at the heart of an electoral strategy that has helped keep Netanyahu in power.
But have times changed such that Netanyahu’s well-worn path to electoral victory has hit a dead end?
Oddly, one of Netanyahu’s successes, the decimation of the Left, may have helped sow the seeds for his undoing.
Some of those seeds may even be already flowering. One could argue that it was a strong but hidden Right-Center bloc that created the political stalemate which held Israel hostage over the last two years in a cycle of three elections.
Each time Israel went to the polls, a majority of the voters opted for a center-right government. Thrice both the Likud and Blue and White parties combined received anywhere between 65-70 votes, enough to have given Netanyahu and Gantz a strong stable government over a year ago.
It’s just that neither party agreed to sit with the other and neither Netanyahu or Gantz wanted to give up the option of holding the premiership.
The two men could not create a coalition with each other, but neither men had the support on either side of the political map to form a coalition apart.
Throughout the election, their contest was billed as one between the Left and the Right, a classic and well known Israeli split. No one spoke of the centrist aspect of the voter map, even though realistically, a centrist government or a Right-Center government was a viable option.
It was a branding that helped Netanyahu, who often taunted the electoral public, that their choices are either,“Bibi or Tibi.”
It was a perpetual reference to one of the electoral equations that guaranteed Netanyahu a win. Given the small numbers on the Left, a center-left coalition would have to include the Israeli-Arab Joint List and one of its well known parliamentarians, MK Ahmad Tibi.
Netanyahu’s taunt, was a reminder that since Israeli-Arab parties have never been part of a coalition, he would likely stay in power, unless the Center and Left parties were ready to make that leap.
The electoral map after the last election, even made that possible. Gantz could have pushed for a 63-member emergency coalition that included the Israeli-Arab parties.
In the end, however, he opted to join Netanyahu in exchange for a pledge of a rotating premiership. It was a move that split his party and sent the Israeli political world to the Center-Right.
Now the thinly held together Netanyahu-Gantz partnership appears to have frayed to such an extent that fourth elections are on the horizon.
This time around, however, polls show that the left-wing Labor Party won’t receive enough votes to be in the Knesset and that a redistribution of available Right and Center votes allows for a government without Netanyahu.
It’s the first time in the country’s history that Labor wouldn’t be present. To understand how dramatic a shift this is, bear in mind that when former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was elected in 1992, he headed a Labor party with 44 seats that combined with Meretz at 12, for a solid Left bloc of 56. Now all that is left of the Left, is Meretz at 6 seats.
Based on initial polls, a Center-Left bloc would not be able to form a coalition, even if it combined with Israeli-Arab parties.
True polls are inaccurate, particularly initial ones. After that its a slim margin at best, that allows for a Netanyahu bypass. It remains a possibility that once the government falls, new politicians could revive Labor and change the electoral map in Netanyahu’s favor once more.
The polls, however, show that at present the battle in this next election won’t be between the Left and the Right, but between three men – Sa’ar, Lapid and Bennett – to bring in enough votes for a Netanyahu bypass bloc.
It’s also a wake-up call for Netanyahu that the formula that gave him an almost guaranteed victory, may no longer work. If he plans to win another term, he will need a new strategy.