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Netanyahu’s new election rival Sa’ar even more right-wing than he is

Eetta Prince-Gibson
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Netanyahu and Sa’ar

Published: 28 December 2020

Last updated: 4 March 2024

EETTA PRINCE-GIBSON: The PM wants a government that will grant him immunity from prosecution. But this time, his main opponent left Likud to form his own party

AS THE COUNTRY GOES into lockdown for a third time, as tens of thousands of people spiral down into poverty and the economy is tanking, in the absence of a national budget for over two years, Israel is heading into yet another unnecessary, wasteful, and destructive election campaign.

Ostensibly, these elections are the result of the government’s failure to pass a budget. But in reality, these elections are taking place for the same reasons that the previous campaigns have taken place: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants to stay out of jail.

Next month, Netanyahu’s trial for breach of trust, accepting bribes, and fraud resumes. For the past seven months, since this government was formed, Netanyahu has been manoeuvring to gain power to appoint the next state attorney, police commissioner and senior judges.

But justice minister Avi Nissenkorn, from the Blue and White party, has consistently blocked him from appointing the people in positions that would be most involved with his case. And so Netanyahu pushed the country into elections, in order to create what he believes will be a more comfortable, malleable government that will support legislation granting immunity from prosecution for a sitting prime minister.

Israel has been there, done that. Three times in the past two years.

But this time, things haven’t quite worked out as Netanyahu planned. True, Netanyahu has manipulated and diminished his formal chief rival and coalition partner, Benny Gantz. According to the most recent polls, Gantz’s party, Blue and White, is expected to get less than a third of the seats in the upcoming March election than it garnered in the March 2020 election.  The rest of the centre is in disarray, the left is crumbling, and the Labor Party is likely to disappear.

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But while Netanyahu got the elections he wanted, they are not playing out exactly the way he wants them to. As the Israeli media noted during Netanyahu’s photo-op receiving the Covid vaccine: Netanyahu got immunity, but not the kind he really wants.

Like the previous three campaigns, these elections will continue to be devoid of any ideology or principle, and will, once again, focus on “Only Netanyahu” Vs “Anyone but Netanyahu.” But until now, the “Only Netanyahu” camp was on the right, while the “Anyone but Netanyahu” camp was on the centre-left.

This time, for the first time, Netanyahu will be facing formidable opposition from the right, where his usual tactics and manipulations are likely to be less effective and could even boomerang against him.

Opposing Netanyahu are former Likud heavy hitters Gideon Sa’ar, who has formed a new party, New Hope, and Higher Education Minister Ze’ev Elkin, formerly one of Netanyahu’s staunchest supporters.

Netanyahu’s primary strategy has always been two-pronged: that he is indispensable and that he is invincible.
Netanyahu will emphasise that only he could have signed the Arab normalisation deals, initiated audacious strikes against Iran, and secured the delivery of millions of Covid-19 vaccines.

He will continue to play his indispensable card. He will emphasise that only he could have signed the Arab normalisation deals, initiated audacious strikes against Iran, and secured the delivery of millions of Covid-19 vaccines by personally calling heads of government and pharmaceutical companies.

And, as always, Netanyahu will go on the offensive, denigrating his opponents’ loyalties and identities. He will emphasise that he, and he alone, can protect the country from the encroachment of the putative deep state, headed by the anti-Zionists who have forgotten what it means to be Jewish.

Netanyahu has turned “leftist” into the most vilified adjective in the Israeli political lexicon and has been able to discredit many an opponent by labelling them as such. But he will have a hard time convincing the public that Sa’ar and Elkin are lefties.

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Both Sa’ar and Elkin offer hardcore right-wing credentials.  Both oppose the two-state solution. Both are openly in favour of judicial reform (which, in Israeli political-speak means clipping the wings of the supposedly left-wing courts). Both have taken hardline stands against asylum seekers from Africa, and Sa’ar transformed those stands into policy when he was interior minister.

Sa’ar, who is 54 years old, voted against the disengagement from Gaza in 2005, and was openly critical of Netanyahu’s “Bar Ilan” speech in 2009, in which he seemed to support the two-state solution. Sa’ar even opposed Trump's "deal of the century" because it included the establishment of a (truncated, powerless) Palestinian state. When he was education minister, Sa’ar promoted the inclusion of greater “Jewish” (read: right-wing) content in the educational curricula.

Elkin (49 years old) lives in a settlement in the West Bank and even during his brief tenure in this government as Minister for Higher Education, actively promoted the Ariel University, which is a located in a settlement in the West Bank.
Both Sa’ar and Elkin offer hardcore right-wing credentials.  Both oppose the two-state solution. Both have taken hardline stands against asylum seekers from Africa, and Sa’ar transformed those stands into policy when he was interior minister.

Both are accessible, attractive, and younger than Netanyahu, who is 71 years old. Sa’ar often presents himself as a Tel Aviv hipster, while Elkin is religious. Sa’ar is determined and charismatic. Elkin is calm and deliberate, a brilliant strategist and tactician who applies his analytic skills as a mathematician and academic to politics.  (He holds university degrees in mathematics, and, before entering politics, was in advanced stages of completing a PhD on Jews in Islamic countries in the Middle Ages).

And, unlike Netanyahu, neither of them is publicly tainted by the stench of corruption.

Having formed a credible opposition, they have put the first dents in Netanyahu’s armour of invincibility. But they’ve gone even further. They claim that not only is Netanyahu neither indispensable nor invincible – he is actually an obstacle to achieving Israel’s goals.

Sa’ar, groomed by Netanyahu, has quickly become his adversary.  He took a five-year hiatus from public politics while carefully creating a grass roots base.  He claims to be the “real Likud” – the Likud of economic neo-liberalism and right-wing domestic and foreign policies – but without Netanyahu’s narcissistic populism.  Speaking on Israeli television, Elkin accused Netanyahu of creating a cult of personality and running his government like a Byzantine court.

Of course, there will be those on the right for whom loyalty to Netanyahu is a matter of identity politics, and they will remain loyal.  But there are some who have been voting for the Likud despite Netanyahu. Sa’ar, together with Elkin, can therefore be expected to be pulling votes from the Likud itself.

They may also pull votes from the centre, especially following the election of Joe Biden, who, unlike former president Donald Trump, is expected to rein in some of Israel’s more extremist policies with regard to the Palestinians.
Sa’ar, groomed by Netanyahu, has quickly become his adversary. He claims to be the “real Likud” – economic neo-liberalism and right-wing domestic and foreign policies – but without Netanyahu’s narcissistic populism. 

Polls held by the major news outlets after it became clear that the Knesset would dissolve all predicted a slim anti-Netanyahu majority on the centre-right.

It’s too early to begin to start counting seats and permutations for a potential government – the deadline for presentation of party lists is January 19th, and there is much that is still unclear – such as, who will join Sa’ar and Elkin, what new parties will be formed, on both the right and the left, and so forth.  And perhaps a new, unexpected, centrist name will surface as the newest challenger. It’s also too early to assess what the Arabs will do and to estimate voter turn-out, which will be crucial.

But two things are already clear: this is not the ideal election campaign that Netanyahu was hoping for, and the next government, whatever its composition, with or without Netanyahu, is likely to be the most right-wing government in Israel’s history.

READ MORE
Poll signals neither Netanyahu nor Sa’ar have clear path to governing coalition (Times of Israel)
Likud would become largest party with 28 seats, followed by New Hope with 19, survey says; Blue and White poised to slip to just five

Israel's left-wing party Meretz may forego primary, aims to secure Arab candidates (Haaretz)
Party source says internal elections would be redundant as the same central committee that chose previous slate will do so again; negotiations to reserve two slots for Arab female social activists began recently

Gantz ousts rebel Blue and White MKs Zamir, Haimovich from party (Times of Israel)
Lawmakers who broke ranks and voted to dissolve the government last week, triggering elections, agree not to run on centrist list in upcoming vote

Photo: Benjamin Netanyahu and Gideon Sa’ar (Sharon Revivo)

About the author

Eetta Prince-Gibson

Eetta Prince-Gibson, who lives in Jerusalem, was previously Editor-in-Chief of The Jerusalem Report, is the Israel Editor for Moment Magazine and a regular contributor to Haaretz, The Forward, PRI, and other Israeli and international publications.

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