ANALYSIS: Do Israelis want Netanyahu’s politics – but not Netanyahu?

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ANALYSIS: Do Israelis want Netanyahu’s politics – but not Netanyahu?

Centre-right challenger Sharren Haskel says the incumbent PM has 'crossed red lines' after politicising the pandemic response

Nathan Jeffay
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Photo by: Maya Alleruzzo, Pool Via JINIPIX
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Photo by: Maya Alleruzzo, Pool Via JINIPIX

Sharren Haskel is convinced that her party will dethrone Israel’s Prime Minister, using a strategy that hasn’t been tried in recent elections: eating away at his center-right support base.

Vowing that her New Hope party will help bring the Bibi era to an end in the March 23 election she said in an interview this week: “Most of Israel’s population is right of centre, but the majority don’t support Netanyahu remaining Prime Minister. This shows there is demand for change, but just hasn’t been the right alternative to Likud until now.”

When Israel heads to the polls, it will be the fourth election in two years. In the previous three, Netanyahu’s main challenge has come from the center. But New Hope, one of his major rivals this time, is tapping in to exactly the same centre-right electorate that props up Netanyahu.

It is led by Gidon Saar, a disillusioned former Netanyahu loyalist who walked out of Likud in December to establish the party. Haskel is a Likud Knesset member who followed Saar, as are several other candidates. While they largely share Likud’s ideology, they say they will fight tooth and nail to get Netanyahu out of office. 

Sharren Haskel

The PM has “crossed red lines” over the last three years, claimed Haskel, pointing a finger at him for politicising the pandemic, failing to manage its economic consequences, accentuating division between different sectors of Israeli society, and creating an “unhealthy atmosphere” around his legal cases. 

One of her biggest criticisms is the sparse enforcement of coronavirus rules in Haredi and Arab areas, which even allowed ultra-Orthodox schools to operate when others were closed. She said this has created a feeling that Netanyahu’s government has been inefficient, and lacked evenhandedness in handling the pandemic.

“This is a dangerous situation because in order to deal with a pandemic you need to have trust. If you don’t have trust of the people in things you’re doing, you get in to a problematic cycle of deteriorating confidence in leadership.” 

She also believes that Netanyahu is getting Israel off on the wrong foot with the new US President Joe Biden, after aligning himself too closely with Trump and offending the Democratic Party. “I’m much more comfortable about someone leading Israel who has a clean slate with Biden,” she said.

New Hope is currently polling at around 14 of the Knesset’s 120 seats. That’s around half the number of Likud, but in Israel’s coalition politics, it isn’t always the largest party that forms the government. The President chooses the leader with the strongest prospects of coalition-building, and if the anti-Netanyahu parties look best positioned, they may get the first chance. 

This could propel the leader of the second or third ranked party, Saar or Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid based on current polling, to become Prime Minister.

Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid

Haskel, 36 years old and the second youngest Knesset member, is seen as a rising star of Israeli politics, and is fighting hard for Saar, with online rallies, speeches, and virtual parlour meetings. 

In policy terms, the positions she is outlining hardly differ from Netanyahu’s, aside from her proposal for a clear exit strategy from the coronavirus crisis: she is advocating free market economics, a hard line on Iran, and a strong economic recovery model post-pandemic. She shares Netanyahu’s reluctance about a Palestinian state, though while he has theoretically agreed to the idea in certain circumstances, she totally rejects it “because I don’t think this will bring us peace.” 

Sharren Haskel

Toronto-born, she is one of the few Anglos in Knesset, but will not embrace causes that are championed by North American Jewry, like adapting the Western Wall to meet the demands of the Reform and Conservative movements. She didn’t specify why she won’t commit to such a move, but it’s widely understood that a coalition involving New Hope would require support of ultra-Orthodox parties, which reject such a move.

But Haskel insists that even if New Hope would follow similar policies to Netanyahu in many areas, it would chart a different path for Israel. “It’s not just about policies, it’s also about the tone of the public discourse and the way in which the government relates to citizens,” she said. “We need a new dialogue and a fresh start in every area of Israeli society. We need a leadership that recognizes that the unity of Israeli society is not just a value, it’s a strategic asset, and our ability to face external challenges hinges on it.”

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