In Upcoming Israeli Elections, Netanyahu Faces a New and Potent Threat

World Politics Review, 19.01.2021
Michael Koplow, director de politicas (Israel Policy Forum)

Posters of veteran politician Gideon Saar at a voting center in the northern Israeli city of Hadera.
(AP/Ariel Schalit)

Following a one-year respite, Israeli voters will head back to the polls on March 23 for their fourth election in two years. While trying to break Israel’s political gridlock is by now well-trodden ground, the upcoming contest will differ in one key way from the three that took place between April 2019 and March 2020.

In those elections, the main alternative to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing Likud party was the newly formed Blue and White, a party led by former military chief Benny Gantz that did not have a clear ideological agenda or makeup. This time, however, Netanyahu’s primary threat is likely to be a popular fellow conservative who shares his ideology and worldview. This presents a different sort of challenge that will crystallize even further the new, fundamental divide in Israeli politics—one that centers around Netanyahu himself.

Israel’s string of three “Groundhog Day” elections—in which neither the Netanyahu-led right-wing bloc nor the Gantz-led centrist bloc emerged with enough seats to form a government—were temporarily halted last March, when Netanyahu and Gantz agreed to form a unity coalition based on an unprecedented power-sharing arrangement. It involved not only a prime ministerial rotation from Netanyahu to Gantz after 18 months, but the creation of the new post of alternate prime minister for Gantz in the interim and an equal split in Cabinet ministries, where the ministers in question could be replaced only by their own bloc leader, not by the prime minister. This arrangement allowed Netanyahu to remain in the top job even while facing trial on three charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust. It also allowed Gantz, who had previously pledged not to serve alongside Netanyahu, to take credit for putting the country’s interests first and trying to tackle the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, even while theoretically preserving the possibility of replacing Netanyahu.

However, Gantz’s strategy had a fatal flaw: His position as the leader of the anti-Netanyahu bloc, and as the head of a party whose raison d’etre was to topple Netanyahu, meant that his decision to form a government with Netanyahu was political suicide. It led to the fracturing of Blue and White in two before the coalition agreement was even signed, and Gantz nosedived in opinion polls.

Netanyahu and his allies then repeatedly blocked approval of a budget, despite a requirement in the coalition agreement that the government pass a two-year budget by a certain date. Finally, Gantz, abandoned both by his voters and his fellow Blue and White lawmakers, opted to dissolve the government last month. Blue and White now hovers right around the 3.25 percent threshold required to enter the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, despite receiving the highest or second-highest vote totals in the past three elections.

What was essentially an ignominious end for Blue and White’s political fortunes coincided with the formation of the New Hope party by Gideon Saar, a popular conservative politician and Netanyahu’s bitter rival in Likud. From 2009 until 2014, Saar served as minister of education and then minister of the interior under Netanyahu, before taking a break from politics, reputedly due to tensions with the prime minister. He returned to Likud and unsuccessfully challenged Netanyahu for the party leadership in December 2019, between the second and third election. Despite Saar coming in fifth in the Likud primary earlier that year—signaling his popularity within the party—Netanyahu did not appoint him as a minister or as a committee chair following the formation of the unity government with Blue and White.

Since then, Saar appears to have been biding his time. He announced that he would be leaving Likud shortly before the Knesset dissolved and new elections were called. He was joined shortly thereafter by Zeev Elkin, another former Likud minister. Unlike Saar, though, Elkin was until recently one of Netanyahu’s closest political confidantes and allies. But that did not stop him from accusing Netanyahu of “destroying the Likud” and turning the party into “a personality cult.”

Like Gantz in his original and more successful iteration of Blue and White, Saar is running on a platform primarily based on a pledge to avoid forming a government with Netanyahu. Unlike Gantz, however, Saar’s ideological commitments are not in doubt. Not only is he a dedicated right-wing ideologue, he is also demonstrably more right-wing than even Netanyahu himself on a number of issues—most prominently his advocacy for Israel’s unilateral annexation of the West Bank.

This has allowed Saar to capture some of the “anyone-but-Netanyahu” voters who had gravitated toward Blue and White, while making it harder for Netanyahu to tar him with a left-wing brush in a country where most voters are demonstrably right of center. As a result, Saar has made early advances in public opinion polls, which show New Hope in second place behind Likud. On the campaign trail, Saar has so far stuck to the key themes of replacing Netanyahu, restoring respect for state institutions, and competently leading Israel through the pandemic and the subsequent economic recovery. It remains to be seen whether Netanyahu can knock him off track as he did with Gantz.

Even if Saar’s early success is sustained, however, dealing Netanyahu a knockout blow will require him to navigate the difficult political math that plagued Gantz. There are many other avowed anti-Netanyahu parties in Israel, including Yesh Atid, led by Gantz’s erstwhile Blue and White partner, Yair Lapid; Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu; The Israelis, a new secular left-leaning party formed last month by Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai; the avowedly left-wing Meretz; and even the remnant of Blue and White. But even if Saar partners with all of them, he will still be short of the 61-seat majority required to form a government.

In order to get over the hump, he would need to bring fellow right-winger Naftali Bennett’s pro-settlement Yamina party into his camp. Alternatively, Saar would have to convince the ultra-Orthodox parties to defect from Netanyahu, or be willing to sit with the non-Zionist Joint List parties, which draw most of their support from Israel’s Arab citizens. Partnering with the Arab parties has long been seen as a nonstarter among Israel’s Jewish political establishment, although Gantz flirted with the idea of a minority government that would rely on the Joint List’s support before backing away in the face of opposition from within his party.

From an ideological standpoint, Bennett would have no problem sitting in a government with Saar. But his inclusion would certainly mean losing left-leaning parties like The Israelis and Meretz. Moreover, Bennett has demonstrated his willingness to be co-opted by Netanyahu in the past. Bringing in the ultra-Orthodox parties, on the other hand, would make it impossible to form a government that also included Yesh Atid and Yisrael Beiteinu, as Lapid and Lieberman have political agendas that are fundamentally at odds with the ultra-Orthodox parties and their leaders. And if Gantz was unable to reconcile with creating a government that would rely on the Joint List, an ideological right-winger like Saar is unlikely to break that particular taboo.

It is possible, given that they come from the same ideological camp, that Netanyahu and Saar would agree to form an enormous right-wing bloc, and that Saar’s anti-Netanyahu commitments are as shallow as Gantz’s proved to be. It is also possible that Netanyahu will be able to form a coalition with the slimmest of margins, comprising his Likud, the ultra-Orthdox parties and Yamina, should Bennett succeed at siphoning back some of the conservative support that he has lost to Saar. Alternatively, anti-Netanyahu sentiment may be strong enough to yield some of the strangest political bedfellows Israeli politics has ever seen.

The likeliest scenario, though, is that once the dust settles and the coalition math becomes clearer, March 23 will not be the only time that Israelis head to the voting booths in 2021.

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