The joke in Likud circles for years was that the replacement for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would be his son Yair when he was ready, just like other Middle Eastern countries where leadership remains in the family.
But that was before 26-year-old Yair started offending people with his Facebook posts and before criminal investigations of the prime minister made Likudniks realize that replacing him was neither a laughing matter nor a matter for the distant future.
All polls among Likud members and voters have indicated that their top choice is former education and interior minister Gideon Sa’ar, who was Netanyahu’s number two in Likud, before he took a two-and-a half-year break to focus on his family.
Sa’ar is married to respected Channel 1 anchorwoman Geula Even-Sa’ar and they are raising a blended family, with children from each of their first marriages and a boy and a girl together. Even-Sa’ar is seen as a strong political asset for her husband, much unlike Sara Netanyahu for hers.
That break from politics was bookended by two very successful political rallies that attracted several hundred people and demonstrated Sa’ar’s political force: The September 2014 preholiday toast at Ramat Gan’s Kfar Maccabiah Hotel, where he shocked the crowd by announcing the hiatus, and a September 6 comeback toast in Or Yehuda.
At the latter event, Sa’ar called for the Likud to avoid extremism, lashing out at a trend that intensified in the party while he was on the sidelines.
“The Likud has always been statesmanlike, which we learned from [former prime minister] Menachem Begin,” Sa’ar said. “The Likud is not a fringe party, and cannot go to the fringe. We must maintain and respect institutions of the state, because we have only one IDF, Shin Bet, judiciary system and police.”
Sa’ar said following this advice is not just the right thing to do, it will also get the Likud more votes. In an interview with The Jerusalem Post
, Sa’ar said he saw himself as a future prime minister but he intended to wait his turn.
“I decided to come back to lead the country in the future, but I am not in a hurry,” he said. “I believe in hard work, but I also believe in patience. I have seen people make mistakes in politics because they lack patience, and I don’t intend to make mistakes based on the expectations of others. I will make the right decisions at the right time.”
Regarding the investigations of Netanyahu, he said he hoped the premier would emerge unscathed. He described the prime minister as a partner who shared his political ideology and said he was grateful to Netanyahu for giving his start when he appointed a 32-year-old Sa’ar as cabinet secretary almost two decades ago.
“It’s not easy for anyone in the country to see what the prime minister is going through, especially me as a Likud member who has worked with Netanyahu in cooperation and closeness for so many years in the government and the opposition,” he said.
Sa’ar said that during the break, he missed getting things done and improving people’s lives. He said he never left Likud, even during its low-point, because he believes in its ideology and he hopes former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon, who made a different decision, returns to the party.
There has been no contact between Sa’ar and Netanyahu since Sa’ar quit. But (also unlike Ya’alon) Sa’ar has made a point of not criticizing the prime minister, even when pressed by journalists, despite their disagreement on issues like Palestinian statehood, which Netanyahu says he backs and Sa’ar opposes.
Sa’ar praised US president Donald Trump as a friend of Israel. He has not yet met US Ambassador David Friedman, envoy Jason Greenblatt, or any other Trump administration officials.
“Until now, the Trump administration has been justifiably very careful on the Israeli-Palestinian issue,” he said. “Previous administrations failed and damaged themselves, so that is wise. Until now, the administration has been checking views on sides to see what is realistic and what is not. I think it would be right for the administration to adopt a realistic approach to reach achievements.”
Sa’ar is in favor of confidence-building measures that help Palestinians but do not harm Israel’s security or interests, like economic steps.
He researched Syria at Tel Aviv University’s INSS think tank during his hiatus. Speaking before Israel allegedly attacked a Syrian weapons factory, Sa’ar said Israel cannot allow weapons factories in Syria or Lebanon.
“Israel needs to set red lines and be ready to use force,” he said. “If presented clearly, such red lines can prevent conflict with Syria and Lebanon. Syria remains a playing field of Russia and Iran. Israel will have to rely on itself.”
Sa’ar said he did not believe Netanyahu has been fear-mongering on Iran, which he said remains Israel’s worst enemy, using Hezbollah as a proxy and looking for new ways to attack Israel.
After organizing a successful education conference in August in Kiryat Ono, Sa’ar is now working on a security conference that will be held in December, as well as preparing for when he believes his work will become more intense.
“I am not unemployed,” he said. “But it could be that I was chosen for The Jerusalem Post
list not because of what I am doing now but due to my future.”