Gideon Sa’ar: Netanyahu’s nationalist challenger
Image Credit: Phil Murphy/Flickr

Israeli voters are spoilt for choice these days. New parties form and split with such constancy that it is hard to keep up with what they all stand for and who they are against. The latest in this long line of insurgent challengers to Benjamin Netanyahu’s Prime Ministerial throne is Gideon Sa’ar, a former ally from within the Likud Party. Sa’ar split from Likud earlier this month and formed a new outfit, galactically called ‘New Hope’. Immediate polling showed Sa’ar’s party as either the second or third largest which completely altered the political balance in Israel. But what makes Sa’ar’s attempt different from insurgent candidates of the past and will the already-fractured Israeli right suffer or benefit from this split?

Challenging the King

At first glance, Sa’ar and Netanyahu have a lot in common. They are both on the nationalist right (Sa’ar more radically so), they both have little regard for Palestinian statehood and both draw support from a similar base who prioritise security. But look closer and the cracks begin to show. Like a growing number of Israelis, Sa’ar has fallen out of love with Netanyahu as corruption scandals linger and the Covid-19 pandemic has played out badly under his watch. 

Their one-time partnership, in which Sa’ar was the Education Minister and the Interior Minister at various points under Prime Minister Netanyahu, collapsed in 2019 when Sa’ar openly challenged for the Likud leadership. After losing the ensuing contest, collecting only 27.5% of the vote, it was more a matter of when, not if, he would forge his own path away from Netanyahu. Now that Sa’ar has made his move, taking three members of the Knesset (MKs) with him, what will this mean with new elections now set for March 23rd, 2021.

For Netanyahu, Sa’ar’s breakaway could become a headache. While he has seen off challenges from adversaries in the past, the ongoing corruption allegations levelled against him have, for many Israeli’s on the right, made Sa’ar look a clean, charismatic alternative with a broadly similar outlook. An immediate poll by Israeli television network Channel 12 showed Netanyahu’s Likud would be hit hard by the split, handing New Hope four of their seats. Long-term, it is hard to say if the anti-Netanyahu momentum will carry on to the election this coming March, but for now, Netanyahu should keep a close watch on Sa’ar’s momentum.

Who stands to lose out?

Much like the strained relationship between Sa’ar and Netanyahu, the rest of the Israeli right is also divided. They may agree on broad policy goals – long-term consolidation of the West Bank, the continued building of Jewish settlements in Palestinian areas and a strong military – but a broad anti-Netanyahu camp on the right has grown in popularity over the years.

Even if Likud loses as many seats, Blue and White (B&W), a supposedly centrist party set up in 2019 by former army general Benny Gantz and a few other prominent Israeli politicians, will likely suffer even more from the split. On being set up, they aimed to produce a more palatable, less corrupt alternative to Netanyahu. The March 2020 election produced an incredibly splintered result, with no party or alliance winning a majority in Israel’s highly plural 120-seat Knesset (the Israeli legislature). Despite campaigning on an anti-Netanyahu ticket, B&W eventually conceded and joined a government with Likud, which prompted a split in the party.

Sa’ar’s move worsened its troubles. The same Channel 12 poll showed New Hope also taking four seats from B&W. While it seems logical to outsiders that B&W and New Hope would not align politically and therefore not lose voters, Gantz’s foreign policy is still on the hawkish side and a strong component of its vote in the 2020 election came from right-wing nationalists who had simply had enough of Netanyahu.

Another Netanyahu adversary on the right is Yamina, a religious Zionist alliance of two right-to-far-right parties. They advocate for the complete annexation of the West Bank and vehemently oppose a Palestinian state. Since the last election in March 2020, the party climbed in national polls and has mostly come second after Likud. In light of Sa’ar’s breakaway, their polling numbers have dramatically declined.

Sa’ar’s interests often align with Yamina’s (both oppose the two-state solution to the conflict and advance the interests of Jewish settlers) and the Channel 12 poll showed New Hope overtaking them at the expense of three seats. Another poll conducted on Wednesday showed New Hope would gain five seats solely at Yamina’s expense. These numbers may not seem much in the 120-seat Knesset, but when many parties commit to not working with others, and coalition governments often compose more than four parties, these margins make all the difference to post-election negotiations.

For the Israeli left, Gideon Sa’ar is a complicated figure. His political positions are decidedly beyond the pale but his personal credentials, and a reputation for building ties across the political arena, make him slightly more acceptable. He hosts DJ sets at swanky bars and posts selfies from rock concerts. Sa’ar’s daughter also caused consternation among many of Sa’ar’s right-wing conservative contemporaries after she started dating an Arab – criticism that Sa’ar repelled. Electorally, Sa’ar’s agitative politics will likely make him anathema to the core left vote. But to swing voters who pay little attention to the scheming machinations of Jerusalem politics, he could expect a few to be tempted by this populist appeal.

But what about the Palestinians?

The elephant in the room is what impact the split will have on Palestinians and Israeli Arabs. The answer: not much beyond an extension of the miserable status quo. Arab parties in Israel are represented overwhelmingly through the Joint List alliance. This grouping of four parties will not see support move away because this vote is mostly solid and it is rare for Arabs to vote for Jewish parties. There are whispers that the Joint List may dissolve if attempts to lower the 3.25% vote threshold to enter the Knesset pass. The alliance’s constituent parties will see it as an opportunity to go it alone. But the Arab vote is unlikely to be affected by the establishment of New Hope – unless it drives Arabs to polls more than they otherwise would have.

For Palestinians without voting rights, the dream of an independent state looks further away now than it has for decades. With Israel signing peace deals with other Arab states that largely ignore the Palestinian issue, residents of the West Bank and Gaza have good reason to be despondent. These latest changes happening in Jerusalem’s politics can only mean a continuation of a fruitless status quo or, depending on the results of the next election, the further incremental weakening of Palestinian hopes for self-determination.

What about the United States? 

Beyond the domestic arena, what will Sa’ar’s move mean internationally? With Israel’s greatest ally, the United States somewhat distracted with the transition of power; it will be incredibly difficult to gauge the current feeling in Washington. What is known is the warm relationship Netanyahu had with Donald Trump. Many Israeli hawks on the right see the upcoming Biden administration as a continuation of former President Obama’s. His election as President is not music to their ears, considering Netanyahu and Obama’s infamous frosty relationship.

For Biden, a prominent challenger to Netanyahu in the form of Gideon Sa’ar could be seen as an opportunity to reset. Whilst they would not share a huge deal of common ground on Middle Eastern policy (a Biden administration would support the two-state solution) a new figurehead in both countries has the potential to wipe the slate clean for Biden, away from Netanyahu’s cosy relationship with his predecessor. Of course, this is all speculative. It is also highly likely that a Sa’ar-led government could be even more hostile to a Biden presidency than a Netanyahu one, considering Sa’ar’s more dogmatic nationalist positions.

Political forecasts are dead

The Israeli political system lends itself to a plurality of choice. With a proportional system of voting and a low electoral threshold, it is not surprising that new challengers will emerge with little to lose from trying. Gideon Sa’ar throwing his hat into the ring complicates things further and even the most seasoned of Israel watchers cannot predict the political ramifications of this split.

An already crowded field of right-wingers opposed to Netanyahu has just seen its numbers swell. But with so many of them unwilling to work with Netanyahu – or each other for that matter – current polling shows that even an alliance of right-wing parties would not be enough for a Knesset majority. Ultimately, it will be up to the charismatic Sa’ar to prove that New Hope can improve upon those who have tried before him and stake a legitimate claim to Israel’s proverbial throne.