Gideon Sa’ar and another referendum on Netanyahu - opinion

All of the details surrounding the campaign, which will be shifting regularly during the coming weeks, are secondary to the big picture that’s gotten lost in the fray.

GIDEON SAAR in his Knesset office this week: Leadership is based on advancing your ideology, and the public respects that. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
GIDEON SAAR in his Knesset office this week: Leadership is based on advancing your ideology, and the public respects that.
After the Knesset voted last week to dissolve itself and set a date for what will amount to the fourth election in less than two years, the political echelon went into a customary flurry of behind-the-scenes activity. Most of the bustle has been focused on unseating Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Yesh Atid-Telem MK Moshe Ya’alon was the first to declare his intention to establish his own list to run in the next election. In an interview with Channel 12 last Friday, he said that former IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot was likely to join his party – as number two, of course. Eisenkot promptly denied it.
Then came MK Gideon Sa’ar’s dramatic announcement on Tuesday that he was quitting Likud to establish his own party. Reminding the public about his unsuccessful attempt a year ago to replace Netanyahu as head of Likud, he went on the say that everything disastrous that has happened in the country since then underscores just how necessary it was for him to have tried.
Sa’ar further stated that it was a painful decision for him to leave Likud, of which he has been a loyal member throughout his career. However, he said, the character of the party he once loved so dearly “dramatically changed” and strayed far from its origins.
“The movement became a tool serving the personal interests of its leader, including those relating to his criminal trial,” said Sa’ar, who formally resigned from the party and the Knesset on Wednesday morning. “Replacing Netanyahu is the order of the hour.”
Later that afternoon, Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel and Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chairman Tzvi Hauser – who form the Derech Eretz list – held a press conference to explain their reason for exiting the umbrella of the Blue and White Party to join Sa’ar.
“There needs to be an alternative to the Right of Netanyahu,” Hendel said, after reciting the “anybody but Bibi” mantra that Israel is in the throes of a socioeconomic crisis with a captain at the helm who only cares about himself. “Sa’ar [is good for] thousands of right-wingers looking for a worthy home. Not a Right based on the cult of leadership or personality; an ideological Right that believes in a greater Israel – one that is responsible and statesmanlike... not based on Bibi-ism.”
THE MOST interesting reaction to the new party (which appears to be rethinking its name, “New Hope,” since the Twittersphere has been going wild with Star Wars jokes and memes) didn’t come from Netanyahu, however. No, the longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s history responded coolly by ridiculing Sa’ar for making the move as a result of his sinking popularity within Likud.
The counterpunch was to be expected. Netanyahu may be worried about his rivals on the Right, but he’s also confident in his performance in office, in his ability to outsmart the system and in his many ardent fans.
It was Yamina Party chairman Naftali Bennett’s answer that was odd.
To be fair, he has found himself in a bit of a bind. Fully aware that Sa’ar’s initiative poses a challenge to his own aspirations to succeed Netanyahu, he has been on the attack.
 “Parties shouldn’t be established merely on the basis of ‘only Bibi’ or ‘anybody but Bibi,’ he said in a speech to the Knesset plenum. “Israel has become obsessed. The political system and media have entered a crazy obsession with ‘Yes Bibi, no Bibi’ – there is no interview in which this question is not raised.”
Though his point was totally valid, it was a bit hypocritical from someone who spends considerable energy accusing Netanyahu of “not caring about the country” and who heartily supported the toppling of the national-unity government.
His malaise over the latest developments is understandable. Like all the aforementioned figures, Bennett is an ambitious politician; anyone getting in his way is a threat.  
Indeed, until Sa’ar emerged this week as the “flavor of the month,” Bennett was on a steady rise in the polls, with his party surveying second behind Likud. It was surprising to discover that a politician frequently referred to as hailing from the “far-Right” had been garnering support not only from disgruntled Likud-voters, but from center-left voters believing him to be best equipped to confront the coronavirus pandemic without demolishing the economy.
Suddenly, it’s Sa’ar who’s providing the “anybody but Bibi” right-wingers and centrists with an alternative. And while Bennett is an Orthodox Jew – with anti-gay-marriage MK Bezalel Smotrich in his corner – Sa’ar is a secular conservative, like the majority of the Israeli public.
Former Likudniks Hendel and Hauser also fit this description, as does current Likud MK Yifat Shasha-Biton, chairwoman of the Knesset’s coronavirus committee. Shasha-Biton, who has been in conflict with Netanyahu over the government’s response to the COVID-19 crisis, is in serious discussions with Sa’ar about switching to his party, a deal that may already be done.
Furthermore, Bennett is famous for faring far better in pre-election polls than at the actual ballot box, while Sa’ar is married to well-known broadcast journalist Geula Even-Sa’ar, whose presence graces TV screens daily on the KAN 11 network program “Erev, Erev.”
Her bosses, by the way, decided to let her remain on the job, with the caveat that her show not cover any topic directly related to her husband. It’s a tall order for a current-events anchorwoman, considering that the next election is likely slated for March 16, a mere three months away.
Still, all of the details surrounding the campaign, which will be shifting regularly during the coming weeks, are secondary to the big picture that’s gotten lost in the fray. It’s worth taking a moment to zoom out for perspective.
LET’S START with the fact that Netanyahu was at Ben-Gurion Airport on Wednesday morning welcoming a flight carrying the first shipment of pharmaceutical giant Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine. On Wednesday night, he and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein announced that inoculation of the population would begin on December 27.
Israelis have been justified in their anger over the lockdowns and closures destroying small businesses, separating families and throwing teens and the elderly into bouts of depression. But, as is the case the world over, each time the economy opens up, the rate of infection follows. Had another leader been in power during this trying time, it’s doubtful that the situation would be better, despite Bennett’s claims.
Moreover, much of the public has been flouting social-distancing and mask-wearing directives. Being human will do that.
Yes, as it happens, everyone everywhere is fed up with having to cater to an elusive virus. Netanyahu, therefore, deserves credit for pre-purchasing massive quantities of the vaccine, and for making Israel one of the first countries to receive and start administering it.
Nor should one forget the momentous Abraham Accords – the US-brokered agreements with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain – followed by Sudan, with the tacit approval of Saudi Arabia. These deals not only further peace in the Middle East, but already are bearing serious financial fruit.
It is hard to believe, but these Muslim-majority countries have been inking memoranda of understanding with the Jewish state in a wide range fields at lightning speed. Such cooperation promises to be mutually beneficial, not to mention lucrative. It’s money that will come in handy in the wake of the pandemic.
Finally, and relevant to the burgeoning relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors, is the issue of Iran. Under Netanyahu – and thanks to the steadfast backing of the administration of US President Donald Trump – Israel has managed to keep the regime in Tehran at bay.
Overt measures include Trump’s withdrawal in 2018 from the Iran nuclear deal, and American pressure on the Islamic Republic in the form of stepped-up sanctions. Covert operations have involved Israeli cyberattacks on Iranian facilities, airstrikes on Iranian proxies and missile transports in Syria and the recent assassination – widely attributed to Israel – of Iranian chief nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.
Whether Sa’ar succeeds in defeating Netanyahu from outside of Likud through a coalition of Bibi-adversaries remains to be seen. What is clear to all, however, is that while the Right is bickering, the Left is barely in the race. In this respect, the upcoming election really will be a referendum on Netanyahu.