Analysis: By refusing to throw his lot in with Lapid, Saar effectively made the PM the inevitable choice to form the next government; he had hoped Bennett would back the Yesh Atid leader instead but no one seems to trust anyone anymore
New Hope leader Gideon Saar(Photo: AFP)
On Monday, Gideon Saar faced his first test since forming the New Hope party when he broke away from the Likud late last year. And he failed.
His representatives were dispatched to the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, currently inhabited by his long-time friend Reuven Rivlin, and were asked who they recommended to form the next government. Their answer: No one.
It was a surprising response, for failing to recommend Opposition Leader Yair Lapid means that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was once again given the mandate.
Saar’s No. 2, fellow Likud deserter Yifat Shasha-Biton, suggested that Rivlin summon the leaders of Lapid’s Yesh Atid and Naftali Bennett’s Yamina and urge them to establish a power-sharing coalition.
This was a pathetic move from New Hope. On one hand, they recommended Netanyahu by default and on the other asked the president to come up with an alternative. Rivlin rejected the suggestion.
Saar, who built his entire election campaign around a pledge to prevent Netanyahu from being prime minister ever again, was hoping to avoid the position in which ultimately he found himself.
He had hoped centrist Lapid would throw his party’s 17 seats behind rightist Bennett, whose Yamina won just seven, but that was not to be.
Lapid wanted a commitment from Bennett that he would not use this recommendation to improve his position in parallel coalition negotiations with Netanyahu.
This wariness is understandable, given that Lapid’s former political partner, Blue & White leader Benny Gantz, cast their alliance aside after the March 2020 elections.
Gantz had secretly negotiated to join a Netanyahu-led coalition despite his success in those elections stemming largely from his campaign on the need to oust the prime minister.
His rotation agreement with Netanyahu would have seen him become prime minister in November had that government not collapsed over a budget deadlock.
Even so, the Yesh Atid leader was prepared to make far-reaching concessions in order to create a government without Netanyahu at its helm, including allowing Bennett to be the first prime minister in a rotation of the position.
But he needed Saar and his six Knesset seats on board too.
Faced with this great dilemma, Saar’s deliberations over New Hope’s position lasted right up to the moment his representatives set out to meet with the president.
For in addition to his election promise not to join Netanyahu, the right-wing politician also vowed he would not serve under Lapid, although that commitment may have been made under duress.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, however, that some promises made during an election campaign will be broken. Netanyahu himself announced he would not rely on the support of Mansour Abbas’ Islamist Ra’am party, but after the elections has done everything he possibly could to achieve just that.
Netanyahu’s potential coalition partners in the extreme-right Religious Zionist Party have said they would not support him if he relied on Abbas to secure a government, but that too remains to be seen.
Saar behaved like a coward on Monday. He and his close partner Zeev Elkin, another Likud defector, are perhaps the most familiar with Netanyahu and surely understand that by depriving Lapid of their support they would be handing Netanyahu the opportunity to head yet another government.
But Saar and Elkin are concerned with their nascent party’s political future and their own, and fear of retribution from right-wing voters led them to neglect their promise to put the wellbeing of the state first.
New Hope officials attempted to explain this decision by claiming Bennett had not yet fully committed to joining the alliance of parties opposed to Netanyahu anyway.
Saar not only guaranteed that Netanyahu would be invited to form the next government, he also allowed him to maintain control over the Knesset and its all-important committees.
Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin, also of Likud, will now be able to cherry pick legislation that favors the prime minister – including a change to how Israel chooses its president, currently decided by a secret Knesset vote.
Indeed, allies of Netanyahu have been exploring the option of making him president, a move that could save the prime minister from his ongoing trial for corruption. Under Israeli law, the president cannot face criminal prosecution.
It is very likely that Netanyahu will succeed in forming a government in the 28 days (with a possible 14-day extension) he has been given to accomplish the task.
Religious Zionist members will likely be persuaded to drop their opposition with dire warnings of a potential left-leaning coalition and a nuclear-powered Iran.
Lapid had a measured reaction to New Hope’s refusal to recommend him. He understands that Saar is suspicious of Bennett’s intentions as much as he is. Instead Lapid kept his attacks for Netanyahu, warning Israelis of the danger he poses to the rule of law.
He is apparently already preparing for Israel’s next elections – which will be its fifth since April 2019.