Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s No. 2 in the Likud, Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar, dropped a bombshell at a pre-Rosh Hashana toast at Ramat Gan’s Kfar Hamaccabiah Hotel on Wednesday night when he announced that he was taking a break from politics.
Sa’ar cited personal reasons. He has a newborn baby, and his wife, Channel 1 broadcaster Geula Even, was recently suspended by IBA news director Ayala Hasson for violating an order to not interview Likud politicians due to a conflict of interests.
“Sometimes you have to take your personal life into account,” he told a shocked crowd of more than 500 Likud activists. “I want privacy, quiet, freedom, and to spend more time at home. I think it’s the right thing to do for my loved ones.”
Sa’ar said he had considered quitting before the January 2013 election and again nine months ago when his son David was born. He said he postponed his decision until after he succeeded in helping Reuven Rivlin be elected president.
“After the holidays, I will quit my job in the government and the Knesset,” he said. “Politics is not a profession. It’s service to the people of Israel.”
Following her husband’s announcement, Even told Channel 10: “I love him and I’m very proud of him. He did a lot for the State of Israel.”
After Sa’ar’s speech, Likud activists at the event immediately started speculating that perhaps the minister was quitting because of tension between him and Netanyahu. He noticeably did not mention the prime minister in his speech.
Sa’ar stressed that he was staying in the Likud, leading to speculation that he would seek the party chairmanship after Netanyahu would leave politics or challenge him for the Likud leadership whenever the next primary will be.
Netanyahu spoke with Sa’ar and told him: “I respect your decision to take a break from political life. I thank you for your many years of activity in the government, in the Knesset and in Likud, and wish you good luck.”
President Reuven Rivlin expressed dismay over Sa'ar's departure, calling him a true leader and saying it was unfortunate that he was leaving when Israel was facing so many challenges.
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog said Sa'ar's departure expedited the crumbling of Likud. He said the fact that those who know Netanyahu best were leaving was a sign of no-confidence in him.
Former Knesset candidate Eldad Yaniv tweeted that one of the reasons for Sa’ar’s departure was an investigation against him that would soon be published in Haaretz.
Sa’ar will be replaced in the Knesset by the next name on the combined Likud Beytenu list that ran in the last election, Yisrael Beytenu’s Leon Litinetsky. That change would leave Likud with 18 seats in the Knesset, one fewer than Yesh Atid.
Several possible future challengers for the Likud leadership have been leaving recently.
Former communications minister Moshe Kahlon quit politics before the election and is in the process of forming a new party. Communications Minister Gilad Erdan has told Likud MKs he will accept an offer from Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman to take over as ambassador to the United Nations.
Before he announced that he was taking a break from politics, Sa’ar recounted his accomplishments throughout his political career in his posts as interior minister, education minister, coalition chairman and head of the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women.
He stressed decisions that helped Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria, such as getting Ariel College recognized as a university and requiring pupils to visit the Cave of Patriarchs in Hebron.
“I have always represented Likud values with pride,” Sa’ar said in what was seen as an attack on Netanyahu. “I never checked which way the wind blows. I have never acted like a weather vane.”
After Sa’ar’s announcement, Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz, coalition chairman Yariv Levin and others said they were sorry to see the interior minister go, and paid tribute to his contributions to the Likud and Israel.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman also called Sa’ar’s resignation unfortunate and said he was a good minister.
Others, however, saw the loss of Sa’ar as a failure by Netanyahu.
MK Danny Danon (Likud), head of the Likud Central Committee – who was fired from his position as deputy defense minister during Operation Protective Edge – said he was “sorry to see one of the best sons of the Likud go.”
“Sa’ar and Kahlon leaving are symptoms of the alienation between Likud members and its leadership,” Danon said, pinning their decisions on Netanyahu.
Still, Deputy Transportation Minister Tzipi Hotovely called for all of Likud to unite around Netanyahu’s leadership and said an undivided party can continue to lead the country.
MK Itzik Shmuly (Labor) said of Sa’ar’s departure: “If anyone had a doubt that the Likud is in a crisis and is breaking apart from the inside, after tonight it is clear that the Likud is losing its most active minister.”
Shmuly also wished Sa’ar luck in his future endeavors.