As Israelis find themselves in yet another election season, this time during a raging pandemic, early indications are that the March election could result in another stalemate resulting in backroom deals to forge a coalition.
According to a Channel 12 poll published on this week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud would get 28 seats, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid 18, Gideon Saar’s New Hope 13, and Naftali Bennett’s Yamina 11.
While Likud continues to lead, its center-right voter base overlaps with the New Hope and Yamina parties.
New Hope leader and former Likud MK Saar has positioned himself as a right-wing and centrist alternative to Netanyahu.
“New Hope and Gideon Saar will unequivocally, indisputably, incontrovertibly, unquestioningly, not - I repeat not - sit in a Netanyahu-led government,” a New Hope party source told Ynet.
“There will be no need for further elections because Gideon Saar - and only Gideon Saar - stands able to form a coalition which will return Israel’s economic, political, and social stability,” the source added.
By ruling out sitting in a government with Netanyahu, Saar could block the Likud from forming a government.
The question is if Lapid and Saar could cobble together a coalition without Likud but instead with some combination that could include Yamina, Labor, Meretz, Blue and White, and Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu.
Saar, a long-time Likud party member who served as an MK in the party from 2003 to 2014 and has served as education minister and interior minister, quit to form his own party for the upcoming election. He failed in a primary challenge against Netanyahu in Likud in 2019.
There is also speculation that Bennett might side with the anti-Netanyahu bloc along with Saar and other Left-wing parties, but New Hope doubts this.
“While Naftali Bennett and Yamina continue to bemoan the government’s obvious failings, they remain on hand and at Netanyahu’s beck and call to keep him in office and deny the Israeli people the change and responsible leadership we so desperately need.”
The party insider added that a vote for Bennett would only make a government led by Netanyahu, including his allies Mansour Abbas from the United Arab List and Itamar Ben-Gvir from the extreme-right Otzma Yehudit, more likely.
“The choice in this election is very clear. Netanyahu, Ben-Gvir, and Mansour Abbas - facilitated by Bennett. Or a stable coalition led by Gideon Saar who will be prime minister for all Israelis.”
Saar has also criticized Netanyahu’s coronavirus policy, which has depended on extensive lockdowns. Saar’s alternative plan called for testing across the country, which would allow for targeted, localized lockdowns and a quicker opening up of the rest of the country.
Will Saar snatch away Likud voters?
Daniel Tauber, a lawyer and member of Likud’s Central Committee, told Ynet: “I don’t know any from the rank and file who left with Saar. Maybe one person.
“I sense that he doesn’t have much of a real draw electorally. He doesn’t have any big achievements he can point to, aside from challenging Netanyahu, and has not been active in politics the last few years,” said Tauber.
“Saar also is not very charismatic, so my prediction is that as time goes on, his poll numbers will continue to dip. The polls already show that he is mainly vying for votes of the left/center bloc that were forfeited by Blue and White,” he added.
Indeed, polling has indicated that Likud is regaining support at Saar’s expense. Saar's New Hope would win 13 seats today, down from 21 in a previous Channel 12 poll in December.
While polls will continue to fluctuate ahead of the March elections, one clear trend is that most Israelis still view Netanyahu as the most qualified to lead the country.
“Netanyahu has a long list of achievements and a large and solid base,” said Tauber.
“The only question is whether the personal ambitions and frustrations of ex-Likud members and ex-allies will prevent Netanyahu from forming a coalition.”
Tauber explained that Netanyahu deals with powerful internal Likud factions and powerful vote contractors and is forced to compromise with them.
“From my experience, the rank and file are very loyal to Netanyahu, and that means that people who seek to replace him were not given the jobs they wanted,” he asserted, referring to Saar and other Likud MKs who quit the party with him.
However, Netanyahu could be facing his biggest challenge yet if Saar and Bennett refuse to join a Likud-led government. But, it remains to be seen if they will have enough votes without Likud to form a coalition.
The main problem facing the anti-Netanyahu parties is that they are ideologically diverse, and therefore it will be more difficult for them to unite.
But the increasing desire to remove Netanyahu is what unites them and could be enough this time around.
The author is the deputy online editor at JNS.org and a writer on Middle East affairs. He is now writing a PhD dissertation at Bar-Ilan University on the Islamic Movement in Israel. You can find him on Twitter at @Arielbensolomon