Senior Likud member Gideon Sa'ar didn't just shuffle the cards when he announced his departure from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party on Tuesday. His decision to leave Likud and being the first right-wing lawmaker to challenge Netanyahu – even beating Naftali Bennett to the punch – for the premiership are a real shakeup, resetting all the basic assumptions that have accompanied the political system on the road to an election.
Recent opinion polls have been giving an average of 65 out of 120 Knesset seats to the right-wing and ultra-Orthodox bloc, potentially helping Netanyahu to realize his wildest dreams. These projections now hang by a thread. The plan to build a coalition which would help him evade trial (through ruthless legislation, parliamentary immunity, or the ouster of the attorney general) will now remain in the drawer of anti-democratic plots. His malicious plan to carry out “reforms” in the judicial system according to the terrifying Fascistic vision of Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin (who said that “Supreme Court judges will be picked by the government”) will not be implemented. Moreover, the 20 Knesset seats the polls had projected Bennett would receive, a wobbly forecast to begin with, are expected to be significantly trimmed.
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As the ground under Netanyahu is starting to shake, the main question is whether the prime minister, in his distress, would prefer to go through with something he never dreamed of doing: rotating the premiership with Benny Gantz for a year and a half and then reassuming the role of prime minister instead of going to a fourth election in under two years and failing once again to secure the 61 Knesset seats needed to form a coalition.
Calling another election would pit Netanyahu against Sa'ar, whom all coalition parties view as a legitimate candidate. With his rare ability to forge ties and create connections, Sa'ar would promise a true unity government, a decent one, without any tricks or political stunts. And mainly, he can promise and deliver on bringing to an end a political, economic, constitutional and moral nightmare, which is eating away at Israel's foundations.
A year ago, Sa’ar was defeated by Netanyahu in the Likud primaries. The rules of the game, as he interpreted them, obligated Sa'ar to remain in the party, where he had no future. Netanyahu, motivated as usual by pettiness and vengeance, left him outside the cabinet. Again, his emotions worked against him, a rotation agreement for the premiership was signed and a unity government was formed.
But from its outset, it became clear that the state budget would become Netanyahu's' hostage, and with it the country’s economy.
Sa’ar was the only one to voice his criticism and the coronavirus crisis expedited his departure from Likud. The inapt and destructive Netanyahu-led government (which on Tuesday proved once again how incompetent it is in handling the crisis), left Sa’ar no choice. Expressing an independent stance, Sa'ar had belatedly departed on his journey to battle the coronavirus and offered reasonable alternatives, which were met with a rare consensus among experts.
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His latest suggestion was to carry out extensive testing, which are the basis for any reasonable plan, instead of resorting to arm-twisting and political madness, which are currently the basis of any epidemiological work done here. Other countries that are not held captive by a paranoid leader who is facing criminal charges have already done this with great success. Netanyahu didn’t even consider adopting a suggestion coming from the demon Sa’ar, leading the Knesset to approve the disgraceful nighttime curfew.
Likud has totally cut itself off from Gideon Sa’ar in recent years. Correction: There is no Likud anymore. There is “Bibi-stan”, “Balfour-stan”, or whatever one wishes to call this party which shames its past and present. The position of Knesset speaker, supposedly a lofty state role, has become a representative of Balfour Street. Even a sanctified institution like Yad Vashem is about to be handed over (thanks to Minister Zeev Elkin) to an unruly, messianic, ultra-nationalist racist.
In contrast to Likud sycophants, Sa’ar is a true Likudnik, perhaps the last one. He is a conservative right-wing ideologue, a political hawk. He opposes a Palestinian state and will support annexation. His approach to the judicial system is far from holding it sacred. He supports reforms, but not the destruction of a brand. But at the end he is statesmanlike and a liberal, as will be his future party, somewhat leaning towards the center of the political spectrum.
The potential candidates to join forces with Sa'ar will hardly come as a surprise: his loyal fellow Likud lawmakers Sharren Haskel and Michal Shir. Yifat Shasha-Biton is also a possible candidate, as is his old friend Zvi Hauser and his partner in the Derech Eretz faction, Yoaz Hendel. There are also prominent figure outside of Likud who might join Sa'ar, but the most intriguing option is former Chieff of Staff Gadi Eisenkot. Sa'ar served as cabinet secretary and Eisenkot as military secretary under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the two have kept in touch since.
Sa’ar will not be the new Benny Gantz, and will never crawl to the next Netanyahu government. He seeks to succeed Netanyahu, not to serve as his safety net. One can also assume that he won’t serve under Yair Lapid. By announcing his intention to run independently, Sa'ar took a big risk – an election might not be called after all. He will then be left with nothing, waiting for who knows what.
From now on, it will all depend on the numbers. Sa'ar will be gauged in opinion polls, and later at the ballot box. Who knows, perhaps the mendacious and delusional “plot of the century”, which Netanyahu accused Sa’ar and President Rivlin of concocting two years ago (in which the latter would give his old friend the mandate to form a government) will become a reality. This wouldn’t be the first time Netanyahu converts a lie, spun in his haunted mind, into a self-fulfilling prophecy.