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Tuesday, April 6, 2021

It's Now All up To Gideon Saar

by Emanuel Shilo, by Hillel Fendel

Gideon Sa'ar

Mathematically speaking, there are several ways by which Israel can avoid a fifth election campaign and enjoy a new government. These include a coalition led by Naftali Bennett, who does not intrinsically oppose Binyamin Netanyahu, and the parties that do oppose him; or a left-wing coalition without Bennett but with the hareidi parties; or a Netanyahu-led coalition without Gideon Saar but with two MKs who are willing to quit their parties and join Netanyahu. A 59-MK nationalist coalition with tacit support of the Arab Ra'am party – many argue that this is a contradiction in terms – is also mathematically possible.

But by far the most natural option, as Besheva editor Emanuel Shilo argues, is for former Likud MK Gideon Saar to drop his strident opposition to Netanyahu and to join the Likud, Bennett, Betzalel Smotrich, and the hareidi parties, and thus form a stable nationalist government.

"The solution to the current mess," Shilo writes, "is simply for Gideon Saar to join a government headed by Netanyahu. This is the right way to end Israel's ongoing political crisis, to establish a stable coalition, and to prevent a fifth election campaign within 30 months."

Shilo's post-election op-ed in Besheva continues: 

Yes, Saar promised his voters not to sit in a Netanyahu-led government. But he also said more than once that he would make sure to grant authorized status to the young communities in Judea and Samaria, rectify some of the problems in the legal system, and prevent a fifth election. All of these promises are no less important than the promise to boycott Netanyahu. Since in any event Saar will have to break some of his promises, he must place the national good ahead of all else and agree to join a government that will, among other things, prevent Israel from yet another election so soon.

After all, the natural habitat of Saar, his number-two Ze'ev Elkin, and their entire "New Hope" party is in the right-wing nationalist bloc. The only thing keeping them away is their personal enmity to Netanyahu. On the one hand, their desire to end Netanyahu's long-running premiership is understandable. In addition, Saar's claim that Netanyahu places above the national good his own personal interests and his desire to remain Prime Minister is not totally groundless, at least regarding some of his decisions. But in Netanyahu's defense it can be said that he apparently truly believes that only he knows how to run the country in the face of the grave dangers it faces, primarily the Iranian nuclear threat and the Covid-19 virus.

In any event, it is clear that Israel under Netanyahu is doing quite well, relatively, in the spheres of international standing, security, and economics. In terms of Corona, too, it is hard to blame Netanyahu for mistakes any worse than those made in other countries. [In terms of Corona deaths per capita, Israel is doing substantially better than most of Europe, for instance. – ed.] He did a very impressive job in attaining vaccines, which have netted Israel shining success. The bottom line is that his years in power have been not bad at all for Israel, and certainly in comparison with his predecessors Olmert, Sharon, Barak, and Rabin. 

Therefore, to say that deposing Netanyahu is an overriding national interest is simply incorrect. When the alternative is continued political chaos and another round of elections – which itself is no guarantee for the formation of a stable government – the scales clearly tip in favor of a Netanyahu-Saar-etc. nationalist coalition. When on the table are critical right-wing consensus issues such as arrangements for thousands of homes in Yesha [thus enabling them to join the national electricity grid and water network, for instance] and putting brakes on the judicial takeover of all areas of our lives, a personal disqualification cannot justify losing this opportunity to resolve them.

Saar and Elkin both have personal issues with Netanyahu. Their rancorous departure from the Likud, which weakened the party by several Knesset mandates, could very likely have been avoided had Netanyahu originally appointed Saar to a worthy position in the Cabinet. The hostility with Elkin, too, is likely based on the fact that Netanyahu took from him the Ministry of Environmental Affairs. It's true that both Saar and Elkin could suffer considerable political fallout if they now undermine their entire election campaign by rejoining Netanyahu – but on the other hand, they also stand to gain among nationalist-camp voters who recognize the great sacrifice the two would be making by ensuring a nationalist government. 

Gideon Saar blames Binyamin Netanyahu for prioritizing his own personal interests. If Saar can now show that for him, the national interest and the advancement of the issues he promoted to his voters takes precedence over his personal preferences, this would truly be great tidings and a New Hope for Israel. 

In the Religious-Zionist Camp

Shilo admits that though he had hoped that Bennett and Smotrich would find a way to reunite and run together, the bottom line clearly shows that the nationalist camp did better running on two separate lists. The total of 13 Knesset mandates received by the two parties is the best score attained by this sector since 2013, when Bennett first took over the Jewish Home party and it received 12 seats. As of now, the camp actually numbers 14 MKs, because Netanyahu agreed to give a place on the Likud ticket to Ophir Sofer of Smotrich's National Union faction.

Bennett, of course, had hoped for more than the 7 seats his party received, especially after early polls gave him over 20. But Gideon Saar's entry into the race changed the picture. Many left-wing voters who were willing to vote for Bennett simply in order to depose Netanyahu realized that they could vote for Saar and achieve the same results, or even for Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid party. At present, Bennett would be well-advised not to seek to form a coalition with Lapid and thus burn his right-wing support, but rather to remain allied with Netanyahu and receive high-ranking Cabinet positions for his party. This would also place Bennett in an advantageous position to succeed Netanyahu when the time comes.

As far as Smotrich is concerned, he did a fine job under difficult circumstances. When he left Bennett and established the party he named the Religious-Zionist party, his support was beneath the minimum threshold. But with hard work, and with the help of the supporters of Itamar Ben-Gvir and of the hareidi-Zionist Noam party, as well as help from Netanyahu himself, he was able to reach the impressive total of six Knesset mandates. Even if Ben-Gvir and Avi Maoz of Noam split away, Smotrich still comes to Netanyahu with a critical 4-member dowry. 

Smotrich has thus proven his ability to lead a campaign, and did way better than Bennett gave him credit for when he said that Smotrich was worth only two of the first ten slots in the Yemina list. But in order for this achievement to be a lasting one, Smotrich will have to open the ranks of his party and turn it into a political home for all those who want to belong to a sectarian religious-Zionist party. Primaries must be held for the party leadership, and if and when Smotrich receives the official support of thousands of members, this will cement his position as the right man to lead the political religious-Zionist sector from strength to strength in the years to come.