Opinion | Picking Their Poison

Will Israel’s liberals embrace a right-winger to end Netanyahu’s reign?
By | Jan 04, 2021
2021 January/February, Opinion

In every Israeli election since 2015—we’ve had four now, and in 2021 are headed toward a fifth—the average Israeli voter has one main thing in mind when he or she decides whom to vote for: Do I want Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to keep his job? Of course, other matters are also important. Israelis care about the cost of living, the role of the Supreme Court, the conflict with the Palestinians, religious coercion and more. But Netanyahu looms large above all these things, and supporting him—or not—pretty much determines one’s stance on all other matters. It looks like a choice between competing ideologies, but the issue is this one man.

Still, these elections are often portrayed as contests between a “right” (Netanyahu’s bloc) and a “center-left” (the no-Netanyahu bloc). For a long time, this was convenient for Netanyahu. It enabled him to cast all his rivals as “leftists,” and since most Israelis tend to see themselves as right or center-right, such a characterization of his opponents would put a ceiling on their support. An opponent could come close to winning against Netanyahu—but not close enough, as Tzipi Livni (2009) and Benny Gantz (2020) learned.

Enter Gideon Saar. He’s an experienced politician, one of the shrewdest, who has been cabinet secretary, education minister, interior minister and more. He is a lifelong member of Netanyahu’s Likud Party and a hard-nosed right-winger. And he has just founded a new party that challenges the prime minister from the right. It’s a challenge that, according to polls, could complicate—or even disrupt—Netanyahu’s ability to form the next coalition. Explaining the exact math of how Saar could win is complicated. On the right, it’s a matter of insider analysis of right-wing voter affiliations. But it’s more interesting to consider the challenge Saar poses for Israelis who are not right-wing.

Why? Because these voters of the center-left might face not a tactical dilemma but a strategic question with moral undertones: How far would they go to get rid of a PM they dislike or even despise? Netanyahu’s opponents dislike him for many reasons. Some see in him the man who ruined the peace process. Some see a man who let ultra-Orthodox parties get an imbalanced share of power. Others consider him a cruel free-market capitalist, think he is corrupt or believe that his political tactics tear apart Israel’s sense of civility. Some of these complaints point to ideological differences; some are more personal in nature.

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Many right-wingers who dislike Netanyahu still vote for him so as to give their ideological preferences the upper hand. Saar makes Netanyahu’s life more difficult by giving those rightists a path to support their ideology without having to support the man. But suppose you are center or center-left? If you are an Israeli who wants Bibi out, and if you also want—just as an example—a settlement-building freeze in the West Bank, you are now faced with three possible choices: vote for Netanyahu and get neither; vote for the center-left party that supports your ideology and also get neither, because that party will lose; or vote for Saar and get one of the two things you want (a chance to oust Netanyahu, but without a settlement freeze).

Saar could win, but in the meantime, he serves as a litmus test for Israelis’ real priorities. He does not pose a question that Israelis have never faced before. He just poses it more clearly, because of his unambiguous positions on matters such as annexation in Judea and Samaria (he is for it), the Nationality Law (for it) and restricting court intervention in governmental affairs (for it). And he poses the question at a time when many voters’ desire to unseat Netanyahu is unambiguously their main priority.

Because of Israel’s parliamentary system, its voters are accustomed to making tactical calculations and voting based on a mix of ideology and practicality. Many would abandon a party that is not expected to cross the electoral threshold, even if it best represents their ideological preferences. Voters consider not just the party of their choice but also possible coalitions and the best way to improve their prospects or block them.

Could they stomach Saar and the coalition he is likely to form—hard-core right-wing, if less divisive than the current one in tone and manner—as the price for unseating Netanyahu? If so, they would be acknowledging, and accepting, a highly inconvenient reality: In Israel today, the meaningful political contest is between varying shades of right—the populist (Likud), the religious (the Yamina Party) and the reasoned (Saar). They must pick their poison—a Netanyahu return, or a coalition with two annexationists such as Saar and Bennett on top, two ultra-Orthodox parties and possibly a centrist fig leaf (Yesh Atid) to complete the picture. It’s a high price for a coveted product: politics without Netanyahu.

Shmuel Rosner is a Tel Aviv-based columnist, editor and researcher. His latest book is #IsraeliJudaism: Portrait of a Cultural Revolution.

Opening picture: Gideon Saar announcing he is forming his own party. (Photo credit: Screen Grab Facebook)

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