Politics: 5774’s stormy year-end surprise

Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar stunned the political world when he announced his "retirement."

Former interior minister Gideon Sa'ar. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Former interior minister Gideon Sa'ar.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The Rosh Hashana prayers portray God as an omniscient being who determines whom will enjoy tranquility or suffer in the year ahead and knows the true inclination of man, who is mere flesh and blood.
This year, that comes to a close when Rosh Hashana begins Wednesday night, underscored the fleeting nature of life and the inability of mankind to foresee the future.
No political analyst predicted Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud No. 2, Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar, would announce a time-out from politics.
But political analysts are human, and as Rosh Hashana prayers say, people are just dissipating clouds or blowing wind.
The cloud that caused a political storm Wednesday night was Sa’ar, whose last name means storm in Hebrew and whose first name is that of a biblical judge who gave all his men a shofar ahead of battle.
Sa’ar, who is known for his close relationship with the media, managed to keep his decision to quit the cabinet and the Knesset a secret from every journalist in Israel, except his wife, Channel 1 anchor Geula Even, who was the guiding force behind the move.
Just last weekend, the Sa’ar family spent Shabbat in Eilat at a political event hosted by the Likud faction in the Histadrut labor federation. He gave the Likud activists at the event no indication that he was considering such a huge political move.
Sources close to Sa’ar said he made up his mind Sunday and decided to announce his move at his annual pre-Rosh Hashana toast Wednesday night at Ramat Gan’s Kfar Maccabiah Hotel, where he would be surrounded by hundreds of his top supporters.
He planned the event meticulously to maximize turnout. He invited every mayor, including those from other parties. Even Arab mayors showed up to honor the interior minister.
During a week in which Netanyahu and his nemesis, MK Danny Danon, held dueling political events, Sa’ar alone attracted more people than both of them combined. When Sa’ar made the announcement, the massive hall was totally packed.
With such an impressive show of force, had Sa’ar announced then and there that he was running for prime minister, he would have received deafening applause. Instead, he let the crowd know he was leaving politics, an announcement that shocked the crowd into brief deafening silence.
Then the Likud activists got upset at him. Activists who a few minutes earlier shouted that he was the next prime minister started screaming “we won’t let you go.”
The word heard loudest from people in the crowd when they realized what hit them was “Why?” Sa’ar did his best to explain.
His message was about his personal life. He was a newlywed with a newborn baby. He had considered quitting for years, even more so since his son David was born nine-and-a-half months ago.
“Sometimes you have to take your personal life into account,” he said. “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.”
Sources close to Sa’ar maintain that his desire to be with his family is genuine. Going through a difficult divorce and finding true love is the kind of emotional upheaval that can make even the most promising politician do the unexpected and leave public service behind.
As believable as Sa’ar’s personal motivations are, political analysts would look for a more political reason even if one was not provided. But in this case, Sa’ar did not limit politics to subtext. He noticeably did not mention Netanyahu by name, and he indirectly referred to the prime minister over and over again.
Sa’ar recalled the June 10 presidential election when he was instrumental in President Reuven Rivlin’s victory. Netanyahu did everything possible to prevent his fellow Likudnik’s election, including asking multiple candidates to run, trying to postpone the race, and even an initiative to cancel the entire institution of the presidency in Israel.
“Despite obstacles – including at home – I ensured that we would have a [Likud] president until 2021,” Sa’ar said when listing his accomplishments.
Sa’ar pleaded for more attention to be devoted to the country’s socioeconomic challenges, during a week in which Netanyahu downplayed such priorities and asked for “many billions” of shekels for defense.
In an obvious reference to Netanyahu, Sa’ar said that unlike others, he had remained loyal to his political values and never acted like a weather vane, checking which way the wind was blowing.
“I stayed loyal to the Likud path without thinking about what people will say,” he recounted.
But the quote that best summarized the deep bitterness that Sa’ar apparently feels toward the prime minister was: “We were not intended to reign over the nation or to maintain control for our entire lives.”
Sa’ar had political ambitions, but Netanyahu blocked them. After he won the second slot on the Likud list for the second time in a row, the prime minister took away the education portfolio he wanted to keep, refused to promote him to finance minister and removed him from the security cabinet, where key decisions of war and peace are made.
During Operation Protective Edge, Sa’ar expressed frustration over being kept in the dark.
He tried to persuade Netanyahu to brief the wider cabinet but to no avail.
When former MK Avraham Burg was the No. 2 man in Labor, he compared then party chairman Shimon Peres to an evergreen tree under which nothing could grow.
Netanyahu has been similar. Many would-be Likud prime ministers have come and gone, some to other parties and others to political oblivion.
Likud politicians have complained that Netanyahu will never clear the way for the next generation of leaders. The man who Time magazine called King Bibi has been accused of taking his purported monarchy too literally.
Netanyahu even seemed to mock the frustration of Sa’ar and others when he announced that he would seek a fourth term in the Prime Minister’s Office in an August 30 interview with Channel 1’s Ya’akov Ahimeir.
“I don’t think there is a need to advance elections but when they come, I will be there,” he said. “Likud members and the public in general appreciates leadership that ignores the background noise and stays on target. I hope [my running again] does not make anyone sour.”
Likud members have traditionally been very protective of their leaders, of whom they have had only four. Sa’ar knew that if he would run against Netanyahu in the next Likud leadership race, he would lose the race and some of his political luster. Sitting out the race would disappoint his supporters and make him look like a coward.
Quitting politics saved him all those headaches.
The personal reasons and political motivation for Sa’ar’s departure go hand-in-hand. Perhaps when the next general election takes place – or more likely the one after – the political and personal circumstances will both lead themselves to a political comeback.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu has big decisions to make about the future of the Likud: Who to promote to what post, how to keep as many people as possible happy and when to hold the next Likud primary.
Next week’s holiday will give the prime minister plenty of time to think. Rosh Hashana is a good time to make decisions, even for men who are merely flesh and blood.