Can Gideon Sa'ar reshuffle the political deck against Netanyahu?

POLITICAL AFFAIRS: Likud renegade Gideon Sa’ar’s new party could be a long-term flash in the pan but a short-term kingmaker.

GIDEON SA’AR – the latest Israeli politician to break from a home party to set up a rival faction and enjoy a moment in the sun. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
GIDEON SA’AR – the latest Israeli politician to break from a home party to set up a rival faction and enjoy a moment in the sun.
On July 22, 1955, just four days before Israel was to go to elections for the third time, Herut’s Menachem Begin, the leading opposition figure at the time, wrote an article in his party’s paper against the danger of one man ruling for too long.
Prolonged rule, Begin wrote in an obvious reference to David Ben-Gurion and his Mapai Party, “is a danger to the freedom of the nation and the morality of its sons. Prolonged rule, even if it benefits someone, is inherently bad.”
These words came on the cusp of Ben-Gurion ending his self-imposed political respite in Sde Boker and returning to the Prime Minister’s Office. Ben-Gurion served as prime minister for 13 years and four months, not counting the additional 13 years he served as the de facto leader of the pre-state Yishuv as head of the Jewish Agency’s executive committee.
Extended rule, Begin warned, against the background of Ben-Gurion’s very long run of dominance, breeds corruption, arrogance in those ruling, and dependence and fear in those being governed. The essence of democracy, the future Likud prime minister said, is a changing of the guard within the state, the absence of which leads not to government “by the people,” but rather government “over the people.”
On Tuesday evening, in his rather stiff and very telepromptered speech to the nation announcing that he was going to leave the Likud, form a new party, and challenge Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Gideon Sa’ar quoted from that Begin article. And then he added: “Today the imperative of the hour is the replacement of Netanyahu’s rule, which is the longest in the country’s history.”
And so begins the latest chapter in the unending Israeli political saga of politicians breaking from their parties to set up rival factions of their own and enjoying a moment in the sun. In some cases, such as that of the National Religious Party and the Labor Party, the parties have essentially splintered themselves out of existence.
Usually the moments in the sun for these splinter parties are short. But that does not mean that they are without significant consequence at the time, and one need not look too far back for examples.
In November 2005 then-prime minister Ariel Sharon split with the Likud over disagreements over the Gaza withdrawal and where to go from there. Following Sharon’s stroke, Kadima, led by Ehud Olmert, won the 2006 elections with 29 seats, and set up the coalition. Even though by 2015 that party had ceased to exist, its impact in the second half of the 21st century’s first decade was real and even substantial.
Or take Moshe Kahlon, a Likud rising star who “took a break” from the party and politics in 2013, apparently because he did not feel that he was getting what he deserved from Netanyahu. He then went on to form Kulanu, a party that won 10 seats in the 2015 elections and enough leverage to land Kahlon in the Finance Ministry, making him a key player in the coalition. Five years later that party disappeared, but – again – not before it left a mark, if even briefly.
So while there may be a tendency to dismiss Sa’ar’s gambit and say that his new party might not last – and there is an abundance of historical evidence to support that proposition – in the short term this party may very well have a great deal of political significance. And this is something already being borne out by the early polling.
According to a Channel 12 poll on Wednesday evening, just 24 hours after Sa’ar’s announcement, a party he would lead would be the third-largest in the Knesset with 16 seats, just two fewer than Naftali Bennett’s Yamina Party, and 10 behind the Likud’s 26.
The significance of this new political formation for the whole political system would be great – a right-wing, secular party without the antagonism toward the haredim of Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid or Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu. According to this poll, Sa’ar’s party could create a number of scenarios whereby a center-right coalition could possibly be created without the Likud or Netanyahu.
According to the polls, Sa’ar’s party would take right-wing voters uncomfortable with Netanyahu away from the Likud; right-wing voters uncomfortable with the religious makeup of Yamina away from Bennett; centrist voters disappointed by Blue and White away from that party; and even center-left voters whose main priority is replacing Netanyahu away from Lapid, because of a feeling that Sa’ar has a better chance of actually unseating Netanyahu than Lapid.
And although polls like this, taken so soon after an event, need to be read with a heavy dose of skepticism, they do indicate a trend – and that trend is that Sa’ar’s move has reshuffled the political deck.
It has reshuffled the deck to such an extent that there are whispers that this move may be the impetus for Netanyahu and Blue and White’s Benny Gantz to reach a compromise deal on the budget that would forestall new elections, at least new elections in March.
Sa’ar’s gambit places Netanyahu in a dilemma. The only way it seems that he could avert early elections is by closing off any available exit ramp out of the coalition agreement that calls on him to relinquish the premiership to Gantz in November.
So Netanyahu is faced with the following choice: Does he risk elections now, with a chance that he may or may not win; or does he cut a deal with Gantz that would mean that he would have to give the premiership over to Gantz in November?
In the later scenario he will certainly have to leave office; in the first scenario – the elections scenario – he may be able to win enough seats to be able to form a coalition and remain in office, and this coalition might even include Sa’ar himself.
With all of Sa’ar’s talk about the need to end Netanyahu’s reign, he didn’t – in his speech – rule out sitting in a government with him. But in that case he would be in a position of influence and leverage, which for him would be a substantial upgrade from the Likud backbenches where he has languished over the last few months.
NETANYAHU HAS managed to dominate Israeli politics for a quarter century – fully 14 years and nine months of that time as prime minister – because he is the quintessential politician, one able to identify and neutralize political threats within the Likud in real time. He has proven extremely effective over the years at defanging any competition from within, one of the keys to his longevity.
One of the reasons there are no obvious heirs to Netanyahu inside the Likud is that he has not allowed any potential heir to blossom. In this, he is not that different from other prime ministers, such as Sharon, and this country’s lack of term limits can be blamed for that phenomenon.
A lack of term limits is a disincentive for leaders to groom anyone to take their place and nurture protégées. Why? Because if you want to rule forever, and if you think you will rule forever, why groom someone who will ultimately compete against you? What politician would want to build up a rival inside his own party?
Which is the reason that competitors who appeared on the Likud horizon over the past decade were either exiled or shunted aside and given jobs so unfulfilling that they left the party on their own.
This is what Netanyahu did to Danny Danon, banishing him to the UN as Israel’s ambassador in 2015 and ridding himself of a political nuisance (Danon ran twice against Netanyahu in Likud primaries). That is also what Netanyahu did to Kahlon, not giving him what Kahlon thought were his just deserts and thereby showing him the door. He also did the same thing to Sa’ar.
Netanyahu handily beat Sa’ar in the Likud primaries a year ago – 72.5% to 27.5%. But the prime minister failed to prove gracious in victory, and gave him neither a ministry in the bloated corona emergency government he formed with Gantz, nor even a significant Knesset committee chairmanship. This denuded Sa’ar, who won the respectable fifth slot on the Likud Party list, of any real political influence.
And now Netanyahu is about to reap the whirlwind.
Had Netanyahu thrown Sa’ar a crumb, given him a significant ministry befitting his place on the list and his previous stints as interior and education minister; had Netanyahu made Sa’ar feel that he had a say, then Sa’ar might have patiently waited out the Netanyahu years before making his bid for the premiership.
But Netanyahu didn’t do that. Rather, he shunted the ambitious Sa’ar aside, leaving him to stew and plot his next move, the nature of which should have been clear to all in this country, where the political culture is that if you lose a primary you don’t just accept the results and fall into line, rather, you set off and start a new party of your own.
“Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer,” the fictional Mafia don Michael Corleone famously said in Godfather II. This is advice that Netanyahu did not heed in this case – something that may come back to haunt him in the short term, even if in the long term Sa’ar’s party doesn’t last for more than one or two election cycles.