The next four weeks will determine if party heads Gideon Sa’ar of New Hope and Naftali Bennett of Yamina will be viewed as right-wing traitors or heroes.
President Reuven Rivlin didn’t do either man any favors when he gave Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the first option to form a government.
It underscored the obvious: that were it not for these two men, the country could easily have a 65-member government united by a common right-wing ideology, often referred to as the National Camp.
Even before Rivlin’s dramatic announcement, Religious Zionism Party head Bezalel Smotrich issued a long statement describing the dangers inherent in the alternatives to that 65-member right-wing bloc.
Those who support those alternatives, he said, “will have no home to return to” on the Right and will be viewed as those who have “betrayed” its ideals.
He wanted Bennett and Sa’ar’s dogged pursuit of a right-wing-led government without Netanyahu to avoid two long-term dangers. Alternative scenarios he said empowered Israeli-Arabs and/or destroyed the long-term covenant between the Likud and the ultra-religious parties which has been one of the pillars on which the Right has rested.
The Right has already not been kind to Bennett and Sa’ar, who have dreamed of ousting Netanyahu, but who received only seven and six mandates respectively compared to the Likud’s 30. Right-wing ideology however is as natural as air to both men and thus they cannot totally abandon it to strengthen their base by fully moving to the center.
Had both men recommended to Rivlin that centrist politician Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid, who received 17 mandates in last month’s elections, be empowered to be prime minister, it is likely Rivlin would have given Lapid the first option to form a government.
In short, the question of whether a coalition will be formed or the government will head to a fifth election is on some level about the inability of these two men to either sit with Netanyahu or abandon their right-wing ideals.
Bennett has attempted to rebrand himself as a flexible politician, and has kept alive the idea that he could possibly be swayed.
But since both men would be needed to make a difference, would Sa’ar follow?
THE FOCUS to date has been on pressuring Bennett, with the idea that Sa’ar would be swayed by his choice. Sa’ar has seemed so irrelevant that Smotrich didn’t even mention him in his statements.
Smotrich’s warnings are just the beginning for the pressure cooker these two men will be in during the next four weeks, in hopes they will rejoin the fate with Netanyahu.
How far can these politicians go without angering their base to the point where they lose support?
Many predicted the demise of Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman when he first broke away from the Netanyahu-led right-wing bloc in the aftermath of the April 2019 election, sending Israel into a second September election.
But the veteran politician of Muldovian origin proved that he had a solid base of support, particularly among Russian-speaking voters. His party has passed the threshold in each and every election.
Bennett also appeared in danger of disappearing from the political stage when he refused to join a Netanyahu-led government last year, with many still blaming him for the fact that the prime minister had to rely on Blue and White Party head Benny Gantz to form a government that was not fully right-wing.
But Bennett proved that he also had staying power, receiving seven seats, so it is likely that he has a base that would continue to return him to the Knesset.
Both Liberman and Bennett made their moves when they were already veteran party heads. Sa’ar, on the other hand, is the new politician on the block and he has no way of knowing in advance how his decision to block the formation of an easy Netanyahu-led 65-seat government will play out.
In his speech at the Knesset, Netanyahu spoke of the importance of a right-wing government to the settlement movement, of which Sa’ar is an ardent supporter.
In the Knesset on Tuesday Sa’ar could not have been more clear about his intention to stand firm to his ideals and promises, repeating that he had no intention of joining a Netanyahu-led government.
His comments made it seem like he preferred to gamble on finding a way to have a right-wing government without Netanyahu, or head to elections.
The spotlight might be on Bennett, but it could be Sa’ar who, at the end of the day – like Liberman before him – brings the house down on the possibility of a government and sends the country into its fifth election in three years.
Should that happen, voters will have to decide: Is he a hero for preventing a government led by a man facing corruption charges – or did he betray his right-wing ideals of preventing a coalition that would approve almost every issue that brought him into politics in the first place?