Gideon's gambit

Israel’s moderate right wakes up, with Sa’ar breaking off from Gantz’s party

Sa’ar demands membership in war cabinet; polling over the last year consistently shows a center-right party could make it into the Knesset

JALAA MAREY/AFP via Getty Images

Gideon Saar attends a campaign event for the new center-right "National Unity Party", or Hamahane Hamamlachti in Hebrew, in the Druze village of Hurfeish in northern Israel on October 11, 2022.

As new polling reveals that Israel’s voters are increasingly seeking a more pragmatic center-right choice for prime minister, politicians on the right are jockeying for position. 

In the boldest move yet, security cabinet Minister Gideon Sa’ar has broken off from war cabinet Minister Benny Gantz’s National Union faction and is making a bid to join the three-man war cabinet. The maneuvering suggests an ongoing debate over what it means to be “right wing” in Israel as the war in Gaza grinds on and domestic issues such as Haredi conscription in the IDF reemerge.

Sa’ar’s call to join Gantz, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant in the war cabinet, which Sa’ar argued is insufficiently hawkish, immediately brought the same demand from National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, leader of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party.

Sa’ar, who has served in several cabinet posts, was once one of the most popular figures in Likud, viewed as Netanyahu’s likely successor. He left the Likud in 2020 to establish his own party, after losing a Likud leadership primary against Netanyahu. In light of lackluster polling, he merged his list with Gantz’s ahead of the 2022 election. 

Sa’ar announced the split from Gantz after months of rumors of discord within the National Union and reports that he was in talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (This iteration of Sa’ar’s party is so new that it does not have an English name yet; its Hebrew name roughly translates to “the statesmanlike right,” but native English speakers working with Sa’ar are still using “New Hope,” the previous name, until an official name is determined.)

Gantz admitted to being blindsided by the move and opposed adding Sa’ar to the war cabinet, saying: “This isn’t the time for politics. If it’s not broken, why fix it?”

One Knesset insider argued that Netanyahu “wants Sa’ar in the war cabinet. He’s right-wing, and,” the source added, drawing a contrast with Ben-Gvir, “level-headed and experienced.”

A longtime political operative on the right said he’s “quite sure” Netanyahu and Sa’ar coordinated the move. He also said Likud was prepared to support Sa’ar if Gantz attempted to block him from breaking off from the National Union in order to prevent Sa’ar and the MKs in his party from taking campaign funds that parties receive from the government in proportion to the number of seats they have in the Knesset.

At the same time, serving in the war cabinet would only bolster Sa’ar’s political stature, causing a headache for Netanyahu in the next election, when the former Likud minister, once seen as the prime minister’s likely successor, would capitalize on that national security experience. It could also help paper over the decade-long feud between Sa’ar and Netanyahu in the eyes of the pro-Netanyahu right.

Former cabinet minister Ze’ev Elkin, once Netanyahu’s right-hand man in Likud and now No. 2 in Sa’ar’s party, told Israel’s 103FM that they offered to fully merge with Gantz’s National Union party if there were primaries, but Gantz declined. 

The reason for the breakup this week was that “there were increasing disagreements on ideological matters,” Elkin said.

“We had criticism of the way the war is run in terms of the pace and intensity,” he added. “We have said for two months already that we have to start the maneuver in Rafah. They didn’t listen to us, and look where we are now.”

Elkin said that “there is a large population in Israel whose opinions are on the right and they are not pro-Bibi and not pro-Ben-Gvir, they are looking for the liberal right. Those are views that, unfortunately, are not expressed when [Sa’ar and Gantz] are together.”

Sa’ar’s move also comes amid reports that former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is looking into making a comeback. 

Israel’s Channel 12 reported that Bennett met with outgoing Bet Shemesh Mayor Aliza Bloch, who lost the runoff election in her city this week, about forming a possible Knesset slate. However, a source close to Bennett told Jewish Insider that Bloch’s husband is an old army friend of Bennett’s and the meeting was not political.

Still, the source said that Bennett wants to return to politics, and is weighing whether to return for the next election, or to wait until Netanyahu is out of politics.

Sa’ar and Bennett are trying to capitalize on the sense that, as the source close to Bennett put it, “most of the public today is to the right of Gantz and left of Likud, and right now the only one in that spot is [Avigdor] Liberman.” 

“Left of Likud” does not refer to matters of national security or the Palestinians. Sa’ar said he wants to join the war cabinet because he opposes the lower intensity of the war in Gaza in recent weeks. He and Bennett oppose a Palestinian state and support settlements. The “moderate right” in Israel broadly refers to free market economics and conservative, but not populist, social views.

Research by Menachem Lazar, a veteran Israeli pollster, shows there is a sizable group of voters looking for a center-right choice – though not necessarily led by Sa’ar. 

Some Israelis sought a pragmatic conservative party between Likud and National Union on the political spectrum even before the war started.

Last year Lazar found in two polls conducted five months apart that about one-quarter of Israeli voters would support a “new right-wing liberal party established in light of the right in society regarding judicial reform.” That would translate into about 10 or 11 Knesset seats, if the results held.

A poll conducted in November 2023 found that a party led by Bennett and former Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel — who is currently out of politics but writes a column for Israel Hayom and frequently appears on TV espousing center-right views — would get 18 seats, eclipsing Likud to be the second-largest party in the Knesset. In that poll, Sa’ar was still listed as part of Gantz’s list, which got the most seats. 

Two polls taken in December checked the viability of a party representing IDF reservists led by Hendel, once a Naval commando, found that he would get eight or nine seats in the Knesset.

Earlier this month, a poll Lazar conducted for The Jerusalem Post found that a reservists’ party led by Hendel would get nine mandates. 

Sa’ar, polled separately from Gantz, only received 1.8% of the vote, below the 3.25% electoral threshold.

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