Gideon Sa'ar: 'We, as public servants, are judged by our deeds'

Gideon Sa’ar talks to the ‘Post’ about Netanyahu, the reforms needed in the legal system and why he won’t let there be a Palestinian state.

GIDEON SAAR in his Knesset office this week: Leadership is based on advancing your ideology, and the public respects that. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
GIDEON SAAR in his Knesset office this week: Leadership is based on advancing your ideology, and the public respects that.
On Saturday night, May 9, Gideon Sa’ar was invited to the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem on Balfour Street. Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu was days away from swearing in his new government and was meeting top members of his party to distribute the different portfolios he had managed to hold on to after tough coalition talks with Blue and White.
Based on the party’s history, Sa’ar was a shoo-in for a ministry. In the party primary that set the list, the former interior and education minister earned the No. 4 slot, putting him just after Netanyahu, Israel Katz, Yuli Edelstein and Gilad Erdan. Never before in the Likud’s history has a senior member of the party been skipped over in the distribution of ministerial portfolios.
But Sa’ar, who left politics in 2014 and returned last year, remembered what prime minister Ariel Sharon once told him when he served as his cabinet secretary in the early 2000s: “No expectations means no disappointment.”
As the only Likud member to run against Netanyahu for the party’s leadership in December, Sa’ar had very little expectation that Netanyahu would now offer his archrival in the party a top ministry. Nevertheless, he came to the meeting, which lasted an hour and a half.
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post this week, Sa’ar said he was not disappointed with Netanyahu’s decision and will serve the public proudly as a parliamentarian from the Knesset. He is a member of the prestigious Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and also plans to promote legislation that will rearrange the separation of powers in Israel, with a particular focus on the judiciary.
“I have years of political experience,” Sa’ar said. “My prediction was that in a coalition of 73 members, either I would get no offer or I would get not such a good offer, and that is exactly what happened.”
About a week before his meeting with Netanyahu, Sa’ar received a phone call from one of the prime minister’s close associates offering him to move to New York and serve as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations and later the United States as well, a role that Erdan ending up accepting.
“My answer was immediate and was no,” he said. “I do not interpret the mandate I received from the Likud members who elected me to serve in a diplomatic position, as respectable as it might be.”
But he doesn’t complain. “I set for myself rules,” he said. “I decided I will not campaign for a ministerial role, unlike those who explained in TV studios why they have to be ministers. That is not my path and I do not believe that is effective. The Knesset is a respectful place and I know how to be an effective parliamentarian. It’s not the end of the world. I was a minister in the past. I proved I could leave politics for four-and-a-half years and return to be a big player.”
Leadership, he said, is not built on flattery. “Leadership is based on advancing your ideology, and the public respects that,” he said.
SA’AR HAD not been asked to come to the Jerusalem District Court on Sunday and was nowhere near there when Netanyahu delivered his scathing speech against the justice system minutes before the opening of his trial.
On Sunday morning, he paid a visit to the South Hebron Hills, where he met with settler leaders to discuss the upcoming move toward annexation and the impact the Trump peace plan could have on Israel’s presence in the West Bank. By the afternoon, he was back in his home in Tel Aviv.
Asked about the historic trial, Sa’ar took a middle-of-the-road approach, expressing sympathy for Netanyahu while disagreeing with the prime minister’s claim that there is an attempt to overthrow him.
Citing the teaching in Ethics of the Fathers of “Do not judge your fellow until you have reached his place,” Sa’ar said that he empathizes with the embattled prime minister.
“The prime minister has a strong feeling he has been wronged, and many people agree,” he said. “I feel empathy for the prime minister, who deserves a fair legal process. I see him as innocent until proven otherwise. The court will decide the facts.”
Asked whether he agrees with Netanyahu’s charges that the legal establishment is trying to overthrow him, Sa’ar reiterated what he has been saying for months – he does not think there is such a conspiracy to bring down the Right.
“I disagreed with calling it a coup when Netanyahu said it following his indictment in November,” he said. “That does not mean things were not done improperly in the probe, such as with drafting certain state witnesses. But was there an attempt by the attorney-general, who was chosen not by me but by the Netanyahu government, to topple the government? I didn’t see it that way then, and I don’t see it now.”
A known advocate for judicial reforms, Sa’ar said he would try to initiate such steps as a member of the Knesset Law and Constitution Committee. One piece of legislation he is planning on bringing soon is similar to the Miranda law in the US under which evidence not properly obtained would be inadmissible in court. The prime minister, he said, had 14 years to try to enact reforms to the system he is now fighting.
“We, as public servants, are judged by our deeds and ability to bring about change,” he said. “The time for reforms in the legal system came long ago.”
Sa’ar hopes to return the balance of power between the branches of government, protecting the rights of the indicted and working toward decriminalization of much of the legal system.
“Israel is charging a record number of people with crimes,” he said. “Anyone with a business could end up a criminal. Many charges should go from being crimes with stigmas to an administrative offense with fines.”
TURNING TO diplomatic and security issues, Sa’ar said there is an advantage to having a unity government now, so both sides of the political spectrum can share responsibility for the key security decisions that he believes will have to be made by the current government.
One such decision has to do with the looming threat Israel faces from Hezbollah’s growing missile arsenal in the north. Sa’ar openly supports taking preemptive military action to stop Hezbollah from getting its hands on precision-guided munitions, a capability that he warns poses a strategic threat to Israel.
“What Hezbollah has done to advance its capabilities in Lebanon is extraordinary,” he warned. “Hamas is doing the same in Gaza, building its military industries. All those around us want to advance their accurate, guided missile programs that can cause much more damage. Israel must make this a redline.”
The same applies to Gaza, he said. “If we don’t confront the military buildup in Gaza, we will face a Hezbollah-like force in Gaza.... This will require difficult decisions,” Sa’ar explained.
The oversight of such decisions will take place in the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, which is also set to legislate the bills required to apply sovereignty to Judea and Samaria in July, which Sa’ar believes is a historic opportunity.
“We have been in Judea and Samaria for 53 years,” he said. “In some places there is a fourth generation being raised. Do we need to keep their future in question? Implementing the plan does not prevent future agreements with our neighbors. We are not asking to apply sovereignty to land of the Palestinian Authority but to end the practical consequences of not applying our laws to our communities.”
Sa’ar cautioned that he does not accept all of the plan, and said he does not believe anyone in the Likud does. He noted that the plan calls for a Palestinian state on 70% of the land in Judea and Samaria, a land bridge from there to Gaza, giving up land in the Negev, and it would leave Jewish communities surrounded by Palestinian territory.
“I will work with full force to prevent a Palestinian state west of the Jordan River, no matter who advances it, because that would be dangerous for Israel,” he said.
He recalled his visit earlier in the week to the South Hebron Hills, where the residents complained that under the proposed plan they would still not be able to expand their communities, a problem that needs to be solved by the government.
IN THE end, while Sa’ar might not have a ministry and might not be one of the Likud members closest to the prime minister, the world should keep a close eye on him.
He is popular in the party and among the wider public, is touted as a potential successor to Netanyahu and is the only Likud member to have openly challenged him in recent years.
“It’s not proper, a week after a government is formed, to talk about running, and I will do what I can to make the current government succeed,” he said. “But was my race in December my last? No.”