Vastly outnumbered, the biblical Gideon snuck after dark behind enemy lines with 300 commandos who at H-hour blew horns, shattered jars and lit torches. The enemy was stunned, and victory was swift.
Now that ancient warrior’s namesake, Gideon Sa’ar, faces an equally daunting challenge, as the 54-year-old lawyer by profession and his team of former Likudniks set out to attack from the rear the politically formidable Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Bespectacled, unassuming and understated, the founder of the New Hope party would be the first to concede he is no Netanyahu.
Unlike his former boss, Sa’ar’s public career did not begin in the diplomatic cocktails and CNN interviews that were Netanyahu’s daily diet as ambassador to the UN. Sa’ar started off as a columnist in the muckraking newsweekly Ha’olam Hazeh (“This World”) and as a parliamentary reporter for the tabloid Hadashot (“News”). Both publications are long defunct.
While the Netanyahu campaign portrays its hero as a political Superman, its main challenger brings to mind Clark Kent.
The son of an Argentine pediatrician who married a teacher of Bukhari descent, Sa’ar is no nobility. Unlike Netanyahu, he is not the son of an Ivy League professor who was Vladimir Jabotinsky’s aide and he is not the brother of a fallen hero, like Entebbe Operation commander Yoni Netanyahu.
Similarly, in his military service Sa’ar was not an officer in the elite Sayeret Matkal (Reconnaissance Commando), but a sergeant in its hoi-polloi antithesis, the Golani infantry brigade. Then again, Sa’ar’s inglorious background seems to be no liability to him, and in some respects is actually an asset.
Before he left the party, Sa’ar was seen by Likud rank and file as “one of us.” His unpretentious but demanding service in an ordinary combat unit is for many Likud voters as respectable as an Eton education, especially considering that Sa’ar chose to return to the field even after sustaining a training injury. His partly non-Ashkenazi lineage, as opposed to Netanyahu’s “purely” Ashkenazi background, is also an electoral asset.
While lacking Netanyahu’s elitism and cosmopolitanism, in his personal life Sa’ar does bring a measure of his rival’s flamboyance. Netanyahu was 42 and twice divorced when he married his current wife, Sara, with whom he has two sons, in addition to a daughter from his first marriage.
Sa’ar was 47, and the minister of interior, when he divorced his wife of 24 years, Shelly, and married glamorous newscaster Geula Even. Sa’ar has two children from his first marriage, Even has three from hers, and together they have a son and a daughter aged seven and four.
This history is not in keeping with Sa’ar’s somewhat colorless image, and in fact has generated attempts to defame him for sexual misconduct. The attempts, led by Netanyahu’s son Yair, have failed. At the same time, the “square” side of Sa’ar’s record seems to be working well for him.
Sa’ar’s political career began in 1999 as Netanyahu’s cabinet secretary, an administrative position in which one deals with all the government’s ministers, deputy ministers and directors-general.
It’s priceless schooling for an aspiring politician, which Sa’ar had been since his undergraduate days in Tel Aviv University. Other cabinet secretaries proceeded to political stardom before and after him, from Menachem Begin’s Dan Meridor and Shimon Peres’s Yosi Beilin to Ehud Barak’s Isaac Herzog.
The schooling that began with Netanyahu later continued as Ariel Sharon’s cabinet secretary, and this was besides exposure to government’s two other branches.
Sa’ar learned the legislature’s work in his days as a parliamentary correspondent, and therefore had no need in any adjustment period when he became a lawmaker himself. Thoroughly familiar with legislative procedures and parliamentary maneuvers, he quickly became one of the Knesset’s most prolific lawmakers.
Before that, upon graduating law school, he became intimately familiar with the judiciary’s work, first as an intern in the Tel Aviv District Attorney’s office, then as an assistant to attorney-general Michael Ben-Yair, and finally as an assistant to state-attorney Edna Arbel.
It was with this rare, three-dimensional apprenticeship that Sa’ar proceeded from civil service to politics, becoming a Likud lawmaker in 2003, shortly before facing his first major political dilemma: to follow his boss or his conviction, when Ariel Sharon unveiled his plan to disengage from Gaza.
Sa’ar followed his Greater Israel faith, and thus landed in the truncated Likud faction that was the Kadima-led government’s main opposition. That is when Sa’ar and Netanyahu became close.
When Netanyahu returned to power in 2009, he made Sa’ar education minister, indicating he appreciated his abilities and loyalty, as he still did four years on, when he made Sa’ar interior minister. Sa’ar, for his part, was earning experience, power and popularity, emerging twice in first place in Likud’s primary election for its list of Knesset candidates. And then, in 2014, Sa’ar announced abruptly that he was “taking a timeout” from politics. Sa’ar had clearly fallen from favor, reportedly because of his support of President Reuven Rivlin’s presidential candidacy, which Netanyahu opposed and resisted.
Sa’ar spent the next three years building his new family and writing papers in a think tank, The Institute for National Security, before returning to the political fray in 2017, and reentering the Knesset in fall 2019. Three months later he challenged Netanyahu in Likud’s primaries. Netanyahu won 72.5% to 27.5%, and then gave Sa’ar no cabinet seat. It appears to have been a mistake, from Netanyahu’s viewpoint.
Sa’ar was left with little to lose, and plenty of time to think and plan, while Netanyahu was sinking in legal quagmire and wrestling with a pandemic’s social crisis, economic mess, and political mayhem.
When Sa’ar finally made his move, announcing on December 8 his resignation from Likud and the Knesset in order to field his new party, it quickly turned out he was splitting Likud.
Sa’ar’s recruits are a reproduction of Likud’s heart, mind, and flesh.
His No. 2 is former housing minister Yifat Shasha-Biton, 49, an education Ph.D. and native of Kiryat Shmona, a historic Likud bastion where she, her husband and their three children still live. Shasha-Biton became a national figure in her role as the Knesset coronavirus committee chairperson, who forced the government to ease some of its emergency measures.
Having thus buttressed his social flank, Sa’ar has similarly consolidated his nationalist credentials by enlisting Danny Dayan, a former chairman of the Judea and Samaria Council, who was later Israel’s Consul General in New York. Dayan’s recruitment was then redoubled with Sa’ar’s enlistment of Benni Begin, whose lineage and views make Sa’ar’s formation an unimpeachably right-wing ticket.
In the interim, Sa’ar was joined by former Higher Education minister Ze’ev Elkin, whose origins as an immigrant from the former USSR, and audible Russian accent, should appeal to some of Likud’s sizable Russian-speaking electorate. This is besides Elkin’s blow to Netanyahu, who valued him so much that he used to take him to his meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
These are besides Sa’ar’s enlistment of Likud lawmakers Michal Shir and Sharren Haskel; Eilat Mayor Isaac Meir Yitzhak Halevi, also originally of Likud; and Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Chairman Zvi Hauser and former Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel, both originally of Blue and White.
This personal package sets Sa’ar apart from the Likud’s other right-wing challenger, Naftali Bennett, who has so far failed to recruit recognized names except the mayor of Sderot.
Sa’ar and Bennett also differ on Netanyahu. Bennett criticizes his governance, Sa’ar attacks his morality. “The party has become a tool for serving its leader’s personal interests, including such that are related to his criminal trial,” charged Sa’ar as he announced his secession from Likud. Worse, he went on, “loyalty to values and ideas has been replaced with sycophancy verging on personality cult.”
Alongside this personal agenda, and reflecting his experience in all three branches, Sa’ar is making programmatic commitments that other candidates avoid. These include changing the electoral system so that some lawmakers will be elected in their districts; holding parliamentary hearings for supreme court nominees; and splitting the attorney-general’s duties between two people – one who will head the prosecution and another who would be the government’s legal adviser.
POLLS SUGGEST New Hope will win some 15% of the electorate. Though much less than Likud’s forecast 25%, the ruling party’s predicted plunge from 36 to barely 30 seats may well spell its defeat.
At this writing, the liberal Yesh Atid is narrowly surpassing New Hope, possibly reflecting public anger with ultra-Orthodox politicians’ handling of the pandemic. However, for this very reason Sa’ar has an edge over Lapid, who is anathema to ultra-Orthodox rabbis, unlike Sa’ar, whose prospective coalition they can be expected to join.
That is why Netanyahu’s premiership is threatened by his grayish, but very calculated and focused former aide.
If indeed Sa’ar succeeds Netanyahu, a 12-year era of charismatic leadership will make way for a post-charismatic era, the way David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin were succeeded, respectively, by Levi Eshkol and Yitzhak Shamir.
Both men were ultimately appreciated by colleagues, rivals, and pundits. Initially, however, they were widely expected to get lost in their predecessors’ big shoes. So will Gideon Sa’ar. ■