The stage is set for Gideon Sa’ar to emerge as Israel’s next prime minister

Gideon Saar is likely to be the next leader of Israel (AP-Photo)

By: Alan J. Steinberg

Special to News Talk Florida

I first publicly predicted at the end of the vote counting on Israel Election Night April 9, 2019 that Likud former education minister Gideon Sa’ar would emerge as Israel’s new prime minister. I made this forecast as a guest commentator on a panel of political pundits on the Israeli international cable television channel I24.

At that time, it appeared to most observers that Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, despite facing the prospect of an indictment on corruption charges, would be able to command a right-of-center coalition of 65 Knesset seats, four more than the sixty -one seats required to form a governing coalition.

On that night of April 9, however, I dissented from this point of view.  Specifically, I asserted that Avigdor “Yvette” Lieberman and the other four Knesset members of his right wing Yisrael Beiteinu party would ultimately refuse to join this  center-right  coalition for two reasons: 1) he refuses to join any coalition led by Bibi and 2) he also refuses to join any coalition that included the Hareidi (Ultra-Orthodox) parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism. Lieberman’s refusal would leave Bibi’s coalition with only 60 seats, one short of the necessary 61. 

I further predicted that as a result of Bibi’s inability to amass a coalition of the necessary sixty-one seats, he would call for new elections, resulting again in a deadlock, out of which Gideon Sa’ar would emerge as prime minister. 

That night, however, one of the other panelists reacted to my prediction with a disdainful smirk. He dismissively said it was a certainty that “Yvette” would join the Bibi-led coalition and that none of the events I was predicting would occur.

By the end of May, however, my prediction regarding Lieberman and Yisrael Beiteinu had fully materialized. Their refusal to join the Netanyahu led coalition compelled Bibi to dissolve the Knesset and schedule new elections for September 17.

On September 11, I authored a pre-election forecast column in the Star-Ledger, New Jersey’s newspaper of record in which I again predicted another deadlock and the ultimate emergence of Gideon Sa’ar as prime minister. In doing so, I also forecasted the following sequence of events: 

“There will be a revolt among the Likud members of the Knesset, resulting in the removal of Netanyahu as party leader, and his replacement by the aforesaid Gideon Sa’ar, whom polls show to be the most popular member of Likud among the Israeli electorate. Netanyahu will accept his removal as long as he can get a non-prosecution agreement from Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit.

“Lieberman will call for a National Unity Government, consisting of the Yisrael Beiteinu, Likud, and Kahol Lavan (Blue and White) parties, excluding the Ultra-Orthodox. And this will be accepted by Kahol Lavan readily, and ultimately by Likud, with the agreement of the other two parties that Gideon Sa’ar will become the Prime Minister.”

Now that the election is over, I am more convinced than ever as to the inevitability of Sa’ar as prime minister within the next three months. I now, however, see an alternative route for his ascension to leadership other than through a National Unity Government.

The newly elected 33 Knesset members of the Kahol Lavan Party are supporting the election of their party leader Benny Gantz, a former Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Chief of Staff to the prime minister position. Once Bibi steps down as Likud leader, however, there could be a switch from support of Gantz to support of Sa’ar by the five Knesset members of the Telem faction of Kahol Lavan. The Telem Knesset faction consists of five former Likud members led by another former IDF Chief of Staff, Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon.

In order to explain this scenario, it is first necessary to focus on one salient aspect of this election. In truth, the election resulted in a substantial plurality for the center-right coalition led by the Likud Party (55 seats, including 31 from Likud, 17 from the two Hareidi parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, and 7 from the Yamina Party) over the Non-Likud Coalition (44 seats, including 33 from Kahol Lavan and 11 from the two left wing parties, Labor-Gesher and Democratic Union). This plurality for the center-right coalition reflects the fact that a substantial majority of the Israeli Jewish electorate leans ideologically to the center-right.

The Likud remains by far Israel’s most effective political party, with a permanent party organizational and fundraising apparatus and a unifying center-right ideology. By contrast, in reality, Kahol Lavan is not at all a political party but instead a purely ad hoc alliance of political factions unalterably opposed to the continuation of Bibi Netanyahu as prime minister.

There is no true unifying ideology within Kahol Lavan – it includes factions of both the ideological Right (Telem, as mentioned above) and the center-left (e.g. Yesh Atid, led by Yair Lapid). Once Netanyahu departs the political scene, the rationale for the existence of Kahol Lavan will disappear, and Kahol Lavan will likewise dissolve.

While the election left Likud as the leading Israeli political party, it also constituted an overwhelming repudiation personally of Bibi Netanyahu.

There are now 65 “never Bibi” Knesset members out of 120 who will not under any circumstances approve his reelection as prime minister. This anti-Bibi majority consists of the 44 members of the Non-Likud coalition described above, the eight elected members of Yisrael Beiteinu, and the 13 members of the Arab Joint lists.

This national anti-Bibi majority began as a fire lit by his political thuggery and the allegations of corruption against him. This anti-Bibi fire was stoked by the grotesque behavior of his wife Sara and his son, Yair, hurling the most offensive insults against their perceived political adversaries.

It appears that Israel’s President Reuvi Rivlin will give Netanyahu the first mandate to attempt to form the new government. He has 28 days to do so and may request a 14-day extension. But he will be pathetically unsuccessful, as the 65 “never Bibi” Knesset members will block all such attempts.

In the meantime, there will be an effort among other Likud power players to depose Bibi as Likud Party leader and to draft as his replacement a hardly unwilling Gideon Sa’ar. The Dump Bibi-Draft Sa’ar movement will accelerate if indications grow that the forthcoming October 3 pre-indictment hearing will soon lead to Bibi’s indictment. There will be a groundswell in Likud for Bibi’s exit once the realization grows that Sa’ar will be able to form a government with the aforesaid return to Likud of the five Telem Knesset members.  And faced with his ouster, Bibi will bargain for a sentence that at the very least includes no imprisonment.

If the five Telem Knesset members return homeward to Likud, Sa’ar will have 60 seats, but he will need one more. He should be able to get this switch from at least one Kahol Lavan Knesset member.

Procedurally, the question will be whether Reuvi Rivlin will feel obliged to offer the mandate to Gantz to form a new government before offering it to Sa’ar. He doesn’t have to. Nor does he have to wait to give Sa’ar the mandate until the Likud central committee and party process officially confirm Sa’ar as party leader: Rivlin is allowed by law to offer the mandate to any Knesset member he feels has the capability to form a new government. Rivlin and Sa’ar have been close political and personal allies in the past. Reuvi will be eager to see a new government formed, without waiting for procedural niceties.

It should be noted that Gantz and Sa’ar are as different as night and day in terms of leadership styles.

Gantz is a great Israeli patriot, a general who served his nation with courage, dedication, and accomplishment. He has the potential to be an outstanding prime minister, administratively and as a decision maker. Benny Gantz is an individual of supreme decency and ethics, a welcome contrast to Bibi.

As an inspirational national leader, however, Gantz is sorely lacking. He is monotonal in speech, low key, and devoid of charisma. He is reminiscent of the late Dallas Cowboys football coach Tom Landry, a man with an outstanding coaching record, but an individual so low key as to be described by the late journalist Howard Cosell as “a national cure for insomnia.”

By contrast, Gideon Sa’ar and his stunningly attractive Israeli television journalism star wife Geula Even are thoroughly Kennedyesque. He is literally charisma on steroids. The Sa’ars are the ultimate political glamour couple in Israel, and they will become most popular in the Diaspora, particularly in America.

I realize that the predictions in this column go against conventional wisdom, but my substantial success in American politics was largely due to my debunking of conventional wisdom. As a political pundit, I have more often been right than wrong. I will close by paraphrasing the late Chicago political journalist Mike Royko: I may be wrong in this case, but I doubt it.

Alan Steinberg is an American attorney and author of the book, American Jewry and Conservative Politics: A New Direction. He served as a high-level official in the US Environmental Protection Agency under President George W. Bush and as an adjunct professor of political science at Monmouth University. Currently, he is a featured columnist at InsiderNJ, New Jersey’s leading political website and a monthly guest columnist at the Star-Ledger, New Jersey’s newspaper of record. He is also a frequent guest political analyst for i24News