‘There are only 27 days left to the Likud primaries – but who’s counting?” former interior and education minister Gideon Sa’ar quipped on Wednesday.
Though Sa’ar is often talked about as an eventual contender for leader of the Likud after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he would not talk about his future plans, responding: “I am a candidate for the list for the 21st Knesset.”
Official registration to run for the February 5 primary started only a day after Sa’ar’s interview with The Jerusalem Post, but his campaign was already in high gear, working out of a sparse office in a high-rise office building in Bnei Brak, decorated with a large Israeli flag and family photos, including from his wedding to former Kan news anchor Geula Even-Sa’ar, and of their two toddlers.
Over four years after he announced his break from politics to spend time with his new family – he also has adult daughters from a previous marriage, and a grandchild – Sa’ar is ready to return, but also acutely aware of the sacrifices he and his family will have to make on the way. Just over two weeks earlier, Even-Sa’ar stepped down from her position in prime-time news.
“Political life is not the easiest or the most comfortable thing... it requires a lot of concessions,” Sa’ar said.
At the same time, Sa’ar had little patience for the personal side of politics.
For example, he shrugged off the possibility that tension between him and Netanyahu would hurt him in the Likud primary, and said that he respects Netanyahu and had a good working relationship with him as a minister.
This tension was made most palpable through the so-called “Gideon Sa’ar bill” the prime minister and his allies cooked up late last year to prevent a supposed plot between Sa’ar and President Reuven Rivlin for the former to become the next prime minister. If Netanyahu dropped the bill, it means he understood it’s not necessary, was all Sa’ar said on the matter.
“Relationships between MKs are totally marginal,” Sa’ar said. “We are fighting about the way [to lead this country], and we are far less important than that way. We are all temporary. We have to ensure, for our children and grandchildren, that they will have the best conditions for the future.”
Despite the disadvantages of spending four years outside the political sphere – though he never really disappeared from the public eye – Sa’ar thinks the time off did him good. He was able to do some serious thinking – including as a senior fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies – about policy issues, and he feels his agenda on how to make the country better for future generations is clearer and more crystallized than ever before.
SA’AR WOULDN’T pick a specific ministry he hopes to hold – “it’s a speculation on top of a speculation,” was his response – but he did say he wants to play a significant part in security and diplomatic matters.
He’s taken a hawkish stance on Iran-sponsored terrorist groups in Syria and Lebanon.
“I support a preemptive strike on Hezbollah missile factories,” Sa’ar said. “Iran is creating, and will create in the coming years, challenges that will require the government in Jerusalem to make difficult decisions.”
Sa’ar said Iran is seeking to help Hezbollah develop accurate missiles that would “totally change the next conflict for the worse, so I think that is a redline we cannot let them cross.”
If there’s one reason for Sa’ar’s return to public life, he says, it’s to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state.
The candidate spoke passionately against “the establishment of another Arab state in the heart of Israel, a so-called Palestinian state.”
Sa’ar took issue with the term “two-state solution,” saying “it’s not a solution.... If there is a formula that has failed for 80 years since the Peel Commission, it’s the so-called two states.
“There are enough failed states in the Middle East. There’s no reason to found another mini-state that clearly won’t be sustainable and will quickly turn into a third terrorist neighbor in addition to Hamas and Hezbollah,” he said.
Sa’ar also rejects the dichotomy that without a two-state solution, there must be one state in which all Palestinians become citizens.
“It’s like saying how do you want to commit suicide, shoot yourself in the head or hang yourself?” Sa’ar stated. “It’s the same result. I think we don’t need to commit suicide.”
As for what he thinks should be done in regard to the Palestinians, Sa’ar called to build on the autonomy the Palestinian Authority already has, which he called “a basis for separation.”
“Everyone who argued for Oslo and the Gaza disengagement made the demographic argument, and we separated from them.... We have no demand for sovereignty in Gaza or Area A [the PA-controlled part of the West Bank]. How did one state come back?” he asked.
Instead, Sa’ar suggested a solution with Egypt and Jordan’s active involvement.
“It’s a mistake that Israel took the Palestinian problem onto itself,” he said. “Why? The Palestinians in Judea and Samaria were Jordanian citizens.”
The way to move toward a regional solution is for Israel to increase cooperation with Egypt and Jordan in areas of security, water, energy and others, Sa’ar argued.
“I think there is a great range of possibilities that not only matches Israel’s national interest more than committing suicide with an Arab state in Judea and Samaria, but will also ensure a better future for the Arabs there and in Gaza,” he said.
Sa’ar also criticized Netanyahu’s 2009 Bar-Ilan plan – without mentioning it or the prime minister by name – in saying that a demilitarized Palestinian state won’t work.
“Did we demilitarize Gaza? Think how much blood has to be spilled to get rid of Gaza’s missiles and weapons, and how long it’ll last after we leave. It has no chance,” he stated.
Sa’ar sees US President Donald Trump’s unorthodox statements on the Middle East as an opportunity to break out of past paradigms.
At the same time, when asked about eroding bipartisan support in the US, he said that “at the same time as maintaining our ties with the Republicans, we have to find a way to have an effective dialogue with the people of the Democratic Party.
“It won’t help with whoever is radical, but there are many people who are open and support Israel that are Democrats,” he said.
For example, Sa’ar suggested that Israel put more emphasis on the billions dedicated to improving government services for the Israeli-Arab sector in recent years.
Still, he said Netanyahu’s close ties with right-wing figures in the US and Europe are not a problem, because there is great support for Israel in those sectors.
As for right-wing movements in Europe that, while supporting Israel, glorify figures who collaborated with Nazis or, like Poland, pass laws that could distort the history of the Holocaust, Sa’ar called for finding a balance.
“We should grow closer with countries that are friendlier to us in Europe, but at the same time, we have a commitment to the memory of the Holocaust and other values,” he said.
An example Sa’ar gave was Austria, where the Freedom Party, founded by ex-Nazis, is in the government.
“There’s a dispute in the Vienna Jewish community” as to how to treat the current coalition, “but I would work with the government. It’s friendly. We can examine what to do with each minister on a case-by-case basis. If there are neo-Nazis, I won’t cooperate with them.”
Sa’ar also warned that the Israeli Left tries to delegitimize right-wing politicians around the world, but at the same time has no problem seeking ties with Arab countries that are not democratic.
“I don’t think we have the privilege, with our diplomatic needs, to give grades for the level of liberalism in every country,” he said.
ON DOMESTIC issues, Sa’ar took a strong stance against judicial activism, especially in light of a panel of 11 Supreme Court justices examining the Nation-State Law this month.
“As a lawyer, I don’t understand the legal attack on the Nation-State Law,” he explained. “We can examine the constitutionality of laws, but how can a judge examine the constitutionality of a basic law,” which is meant to be a chapter of an eventual constitution?
Sa’ar called for a reform in Knesset-judiciary relations, regulated in a Basic Law: Legislation, by which only the Supreme Court can cancel legislation, and the Knesset would be able to override the cancellation with a supermajority.
“After that, we will still argue about rulings, but at least the rules of the game will be set and agreed upon,” he said.
As for the style of criticism of the law enforcement from some wings of his party, Sa’ar avoided criticizing Netanyahu, who plans to continue focusing on his own legal troubles throughout the Likud’s election campaign.
“I’m not a style critic,” he said. “It’s legitimate to criticize the judiciary and legal authorities. The problem is something else. We in the political level need to take some actions, instead of complaining. We need to pass Basic Law: Legislation. We can take historic action.
“The existing situation hurts the public’s trust in all the authorities, and it is very unhealthy,” he said.
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