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Bibi's new far right election foe poses challenge to Biden

With Gideon Sa’ar now leading the charge, it's almost certain the new White House will face a very hardline Israeli government.

Analysis | Middle East

Israel is heading to new elections, for the fourth time in two years, and it may not be the last one. Like the previous three elections, there is a strong possibility that this one will end without any candidate having a clear path to putting together a governing coalition. 

But there will be two key differences in this election. First, Donald Trump will not be in the White House. How a prospective prime minister will deal with Israel’s most important ally and patron is always a key issue, and Joe Biden presents a very different White House, in Israeli eyes, from Trump.

The second major difference is that Benny Gantz, who played the role of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s chief rival in the last three rounds, has lost most of his support. The new key challenger will be from the hardcore right-wing, former Likud number two Gideon Sa’ar and his Tikvah Hadasha party (which translates to “New Hope”). 

It’s much too soon to know how things will shake out in this campaign, even though the election is just three months away. The list of variables is long, and if the last three elections are any guide, there will be deals and coalitions formed that can have a dramatic effect. But with Sa’ar now leading the charge against Netanyahu, it is almost certain that the Biden administration will face a very hardline Israeli government, whether or not Netanyahu wins again.

An Anti-Netanyahu Campaign

Gideon Sa’ar has, for the past decade, been the person many believed would eventually succeed Netanyahu. In more recent years, he has become perhaps Netanyahu’s most bitter rival, joining an ever-growing list of right-wing figures who have fallen out with “King Bibi.” Now, he is positioning himself as the candidate who can give Israel the policies they tend to like from Netanyahu — hawkish foreign policy, neoliberal economic policies — with more liberal social policies.

Sa’ar is a worthy symbol for Israel 2020. A fierce nationalist, he has always opposed both a Palestinian state and granting citizenship to the Palestinians under Israel’s control. He favors “limited autonomy” if the status quo can’t hold but has little regard for “niceties” like international law and human rights norms. He has opposed compromise with the Palestinians at every turn. 

But Sa’ar has another side as well. He is a Tel Avivian who enjoys the big city life. He has drawn praise for his support of Jewish LGBTQ and women’s rights. He also draws a contrast with both Netanyahu and his comrade, Donald Trump, in that he does not tend toward inflammatory rhetoric that inflames the citizenry against each other and generally supports the rule of law domestically. 

Sa’ar’s nationalism is popular in Israel and his relative liberalism on some social issues could make him even more appealing, especially as Israelis consider the need to mend fences with liberal Jews in the U.S. and with the Democratic party. His weakness in challenging Netanyahu is his inexperience in international affairs. His government roles have been in the Interior and Education ministries. His attitude toward the Palestinians is even farther right than Netanyahu, but many Israelis will question his ability to balance his hawkish views with a Joe Biden administration that will be somewhat less deferential than Donald Trump’s. More importantly, Israelis will want to know that he can deal with perceived threats from militant groups, such as Hamas and Hezbollah, and from other states such as Iran.

His strategy is going to be to challenge Netanyahu on the strongest ground he has: corruption. His party’s name, “New Hope,” is a nod to Sa’ar’s effort to bring the Israeli right-wing out of Netanyahu’s shadow, one which has tainted it with the stench of greed and corruption. He is likely to attempt to cast Likud as a cult of personality, devoted to Netanyahu, rather than to Israel.  

That’s the tactic he tried when he challenged Netanyahu for the Likud leadership in 2019, and he failed badly, with Netanyahu coming away with 72.5 percent of the vote. But Sa’ar hopes that the pitch will work better on the broader Israeli public. Early polls show him with between 15 and 24 seats in the next Knesset, so he has some evidence to support that view. 

The question is whether Sa’ar can win by simply not being Netanyahu. That he was unable to unseat Netanyahu at the head of Likud despite the many scandals the prime minister was fighting off may not be encouraging, but now Sa’ar is betting on consolidating anti-Bibi sentiment from numerous right and center-right sources. 

It might work, even if he can’t get enough votes to outpace Likud. He might have the ability to join with right-wing groups like Naftali Bennett’s Yamina and Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party, both of which are led by former Likud men who are as alienated from Netanyahu as Sa’ar is. Such a center-right bloc could draw support from Lapid’s Yesh Atid party. That coalition might be able to cobble together a slight majority if they can pick up half a dozen or so seats between now and the election. 

A new challenge for Biden

In many ways, Sa’ar might be even more difficult than Netanyahu for a Biden administration to deal with. As a more committed ideologue rather than a self-interested one, and as someone who can put a more liberal face on Israel’s domestic policies than Netanyahu, it might be harder to press Sa’ar for concessions, especially now that Netanyahu has demonstrated that Israel can undermine a Democratic leader with impunity. 

Moreover, for Democrats and many American Jews, Sa’ar’s social centrism will be more acceptable than Netanyahu’s conservatism, strengthening pro-Israel Democrats’ position and appealing directly to Biden’s traditional, pro-Israel sensibilities. 

Sa’ar’s entry into the race could also lead to either Yair Lapid or Naftali Bennett getting the opportunity to form a government. While current polls show Likud as the leader, the breakdown looks unlikely to yield enough support for Netanyahu for him to form a governing coalition. Much can change between now and the election in March, but if Netanyahu cannot form a majority coalition, the second-place contender will be given the opportunity. As things stand, that could be any of Sa’ar, Bennett, or Lapid, and none of them would be sure to be able to gain a majority either. So there is a distinct possibility that the election in March will be, yet again, only the first of several races. 

Whether or not the March election proves decisive, Biden’s first few months will not see a fully functioning Israeli government. That will almost certainly mean that American diplomacy will be in a holding pattern until a new Knesset convenes. 

It is also likely that, whatever the outcome, both the next Israeli government and the opposition will be led by the right. That means that if the U.S. or any international actor wants to restart any kind of peace process, or get any concessions from Israel regarding the Palestinians, they’re going to have to apply the sort of pressure that Joe Biden has always been loath to put on Israel. But that is the choice he will have to make. 

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-Vice President Joe Biden during their meeting at Netanyahu's residence in Jerusalem March 9, 2010. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun
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