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The implications of the Sa’ar-Gantz split

MK Yifat Shasha-Biton of Sa’ar’s faction told JNS that Sa’ar will not rejoin the Likud, wants a seat in the war cabinet.

MK Gideon Sa'ar attends a faction meeting of the National Unity Party at the Knesset on Feb. 6, 2023. Photo: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90
MK Gideon Sa'ar attends a faction meeting of the National Unity Party at the Knesset on Feb. 6, 2023. Photo: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90

Israeli minister without portfolio Gideon Sa’ar’s announcement on Tuesday that he is splitting from Benny Gantz’s National Unity Party, taking three members of Knesset with him, did not come as a surprise. Gantz’s party dropped from 12 Knesset seats to eight, though polls show it winning 35-40 seats in the next elections.

Many members of the current government shook hands with Sa’ar’s MKs, seeing them as a lifeline for the current government, which is under massive pressure to resign and go to elections.

Many questions remain, however. Will Sa’ar join Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party? Will Sa’ar seek a more active role in the current government? Will his move indeed rescue Netanyahu’s coalition?

Will Sa’ar rejoin Likud?

Sa’ar’s split with Gantz was inevitable. Relations between the two men have been tenuous for some time, especially after the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war, and the only question was when the split would occur.

However, the question of whether Sa’ar and his fellow MKs—all former Likud members—will return to the Likud fold is more complex.

MK Yifat Shasha-Biton, a member of Sa’ar’s faction, was emphatic: “The answer to this question is unequivocally no.” She told JNS, “We will not join Likud and we will not go with Netanyahu. We want to bring out the voice of … the moderate right.”

Zeev Kam, a senior political correspondent for Israeli public broadcaster Kan, told JNS that Sa’ar “is not going to Likud. He split now because he wants to build a right-wing alternative.”

“You can’t split a minute before the elections, when the Knesset dissolves itself, and then start building a new right-wing party,” he explained, “because in the meantime there are other people who are working to establish such an alternative, such as Yossi Cohen, Yoaz Hendel and Naftali Bennett.”

“If he wanted to join Likud, he could have waited to split, because that can be done even at the last minute,” Kam emphasized. “The split now is an indication that he wants to try and establish a new right-wing party.”

The battle for position in the war cabinet

All final decisions on the war in Gaza are made by the Israeli war cabinet, established five days into the conflict when National Unity joined the coalition. Netanyahu, Gantz and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant are the primary members, joined by observers Gadi Eisenkot (National Unity) and Ron Dermer (Likud). Immediately after Sa’ar announced his split from Gantz, he sought to join the war cabinet.

“Sa’ar wants to influence how the war is proceeding. That is the exact reason we entered the emergency government,” said Shasha-Biton. “It’s important to be there and to have an impact. Our voice is not expressed there and it is no secret that we criticize some of the conduct of the war. Sa’ar’s request is to enable our voice to be heard and influence the course of the war.”

Gantz was not enthusiastic at the prospect, to say the least. MK Orit Farkash of National Unity told JNS, “The war cabinet, in its current format, is working well and that is the way it should proceed.”

“We saw yesterday that after Sa’ar asked to join the war cabinet, [National Security Minister] Itamar Ben-Gvir also asked to join,” she said. “So, I think the current structure of the cabinet is the best structure.”

In a written statement, Sa’ar claimed that Gantz’s refusal to allow him to join the war cabinet was not based on “what is best for the country.”

Will the split lead to new elections?

Sa’ar and his MKs give the current government a stable 65-seat majority. But Sa’ar quickly signaled that he was not in Netanyahu’s pocket by opposing the just-passed war budget. Nonetheless, the general assessment is that Sa’ar does not want elections at the moment.

Kam told JNS, “In my opinion, this can actually extend the life of the government. After all, to build himself as a right-wing party, Sa’ar needs time. After the split from Gantz, Sa’ar has to prove to the right-wing public that, while it is true that he was with Gantz—who is not considered right-wing by the voters—he is a real right-winger. Therefore, he needs time; also to recruit people, also to present programs on various issues.”

Shasha-Biton told JNS that an election is the last thing the country needs right now.

“In the current reality where there are hostages in Gaza, our soldiers who are still fighting in Gaza, tens of thousands of citizens who are being evacuated from their homes and are actually refugees in their own country, it is not right to go to elections,” she said. “Elections will harm first and foremost the ability to return the hostages in the immediate time frame and will harm achieving the goals of the war. It’s time to be together in the face of challenges. Then the time for political correction will come. And a political correction is required.”

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