Likud Lawmaker Breaks Ranks, Launches New Party Aimed at ‘Replacing Netanyahu’
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks over his glasses as he and former Education Minister Gidon Sa’ar chat at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting on October 18, 2009 in Jerusalem. (Photo DAVID SILVERMAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Likud Lawmaker Breaks Ranks, Launches New Party Aimed at ‘Replacing Netanyahu’

Realignment of Israeli politics threatens long-serving prime minister’s reign

As if Israel’s political landscape wasn’t muddled enough ahead of near-certain early elections, prominent parliament lawmaker Gideon Sa’ar, from the right-wing Likud party, shocked the nation Tuesday when he announced he would leave his longtime political home to form a new right-wing party to challenge Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s leadership.

Sa’ar’s potential game-changing political maneuver received a significant boost on Wednesday when two Knesset lawmakers, formerly of the centrist Blue and White party, announced they would join Sa’ar’s new right-wing movement.

“Israel needs a proper alternative to the right of Netanyahu,” Yoaz Hendel said during a news conference alongside Zvi Hauser, his partner in the center-right Derech Eretz party. The two lawmakers split from Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz’s party in March but had remained aligned with it in the Knesset since the current government’s formation in May.

“We deserve leadership that unites us, that sees the good of the people. Not the divisive leadership of Netanyahu. Being right wing doesn’t mean being a Bibi loyalist,” Hendel insisted, referring to the prime minister by his nickname.

A reprehensible culture of demeaning and slandering political rivals, from within and without our party, has set in. I can no longer be a part of this. Today’s primary mission is the replacement of Netanyahu

Sa’ar, long considered the last thorn in Netanyahu’s side from within the party and the only one to challenge the prime minister in last year’s party primaries, sharply rebuked his partner-turned-foe, referring to Netanyahu with the same rhetoric reserved for him by opposition lawmakers.

“The Likud has lost its path in recent years, quickly and dramatically,” Sa’ar said during the special press conference. He accused Netanyahu of fostering a “cult of personality” and using the party as “a tool for personal interests, including those pertaining to his criminal legal battles,” saying he no longer could take part in such a sham.

Netanyahu is currently standing trial on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

“A reprehensible culture of demeaning and slandering political rivals, from within and without our party, has set in. I can no longer be a part of this. Today’s primary mission is the replacement of Netanyahu,” Sa’ar concluded.

The Likud party was quick to respond, accusing Sa’ar of “deserting” his party and joining the left-wing opposition. “The party will remain united,” Likud’s official Twitter account promised.

Yet on Wednesday the first cracks in the wall began to appear, as two of Sa’ar’s loyalists in the Likud, Sharen Haskel and Michal Shir, were rumored to be joining the veteran lawmaker’s new venture. Yifat Shasha Biton – a lawmaker who currently is housed in the Likud but was until recently a member of the right-wing Kulanu party, is expected to officially follow Sa’ar in the coming days as well.

“This is a disturbing development, but not because of the damage it inflicts on the Likud,” Uzi Dayan, a Likud lawmaker, told The Media Line.

There is no denying it is a right-wing party, but it was constructed ad hoc, with the sole purpose of bringing Netanyahu down. There’s no ideology, no principles

“There definitely could be some negative effect on the party’s strength. But this worries me because it introduces yet another undemocratic party into parliament. Today there are almost 70 MPs that were not elected by voters, but rather appointed by party chairs, and Sa’ar’s party is no different,” he said. “There is no denying it is a right-wing party, but it was constructed ad hoc, with the sole purpose of bringing Netanyahu down. There’s no ideology, no principles,” he added.

Dayan, a retired brigadier general who served as Israel’s military deputy chief of staff, said he could identify with Sa’ar’s frustration, to some extent.

“I could also feel like the Likud doesn’t allow me to realize my full potential, but the answer isn’t to ditch the party – it’s to continue fighting from within,” he said.

Netanyahu is currently standing trial on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

A source in the right-wing Yisrael Beitenu party, which already declared its intention to topple Netanyahu last year, told The Media Line they are “happy when anyone realizes the damage done by Netanyahu” to the country, and “welcomed all those who join” their efforts.

Yisrael Beiteinu is not concerned that the new party will siphon votes away from it, according to the source, who said Yisrael Beiteinu has a “loyal and consistent” base of supporters.

First elected to Knesset in 2003, Sa’ar has served in a number of high-profile roles, including education minister and interior minister. He was considered closely allied with former Likud chair Ariel Sharon, and in recent years was effectively cast out by Netanyahu, who refused to appoint him as a government minister despite his high standing within the party.

The dramatic realignment initiated by Sa’ar could very well upend the current political outlook in Israel.

Netanyahu, who for the past six months has refused to pass a budget in the hopes of dissolving the government at a time that is more politically advantageous to him and heading to elections, may even feel threatened enough to forego his plans and allow the current coalition to live out its full four-and-a-half-year term.

It’s not too late to postpone the elections. Both parties need to put in some effort to avoid elections now

While that would entail Netanyahu upholding his end of the bargain made with Gantz and handing over reins of the government to him in one year, the prospect of losing a snap election in three months’ time and facing the courts without the title of prime minister or alternate prime minister may be too much for the embattled politician.

“It’s not too late to postpone the elections. Both parties need to put in some effort to avoid elections now,” said Dayan, who added that if elections are eventually called, he would demand to hold primaries for the Likud’s list of lawmakers, to “present the best team possible and maximize our strength.”

Netanyahu himself on Wednesday promised to do everything in his power to avoid “unnecessary” elections, blaming Blue and White for dragging the country to the polls.

As for his new arch rival, the prime minister dismissed Sa’ar, accusing him of abandoning the party for his own personal gain.

“I’m not worried – he’ll receive the usual hug from the press, but the Israeli people know who actually takes care of them,” Netanyahu said.

 

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