Gideon Sa’ar dares to openly take on Netanyahu

Sa’ar is fully aware of the difficult path he has embarked on.

Gideon Sa’ar takes on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during an interview at his Knesset office on Wednesday.  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Gideon Sa’ar takes on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during an interview at his Knesset office on Wednesday.
A political cartoon in the pro-Netanyahu newspaper Israel Hayom depicted Likud MK Gideon Sa’ar this week as a knight attempting to enter a fortress, unaware of the many obstacles that await him.
The cartoon’s aim was to mock Sa’ar and portray him as naive.
But Sa’ar is fully aware of the difficult path he has embarked on – openly challenging Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the leadership of the Likud Party. It is that political courage that has made Sa’ar a leading candidate for Likud leader and prime minister, and has turned him into – in the eyes of Netanyahu and his family – a serious threat and contender.
At a time when other politicians are careful not to take risks or make any political announcements, Sa’ar has done the opposite, incurring the wrath of some of his fellow Likudniks, such as Nir Barkat and Miri Regev, who openly criticized him this week. But that doesn’t faze Sa’ar, who, in an exclusive interview with The Jerusalem Post this week, questioned Netanyahu’s behavior, asking: “What’s the horizon? Where is the hope? You can’t drag the country to elections forever.”
Such a move cannot be taken for granted. Sa’ar not only worked for years for Netanyahu, but he was also one of the MKs closest to the Likud leader, helping him stay in power after he led the party to only 12 seats in the 2006 election. Sa’ar has been education minister and interior minister, but he left the latter post to take a break from politics in 2014 to spend time with his family after a political dispute with Netanyahu.
In the interview at his Knesset office, Sa’ar explained the timing for his decision to try to prevent a third election in under a year by seeking a Likud leadership primary during the period until December 11, when any MK can form a government. In the interview, which was conducted in English, he also outlined what his diplomatic and security strategies would be if he were to become prime minister.
“The first time I spoke about going to primaries was on October 3, when the prime minister suggested a snap primary via his spokesman, and I said I’m ready,” he recalled. “The reason I said that was that I already thought then that he would face huge difficulties in forming a government, and we might be in a situation like we are right now. I thought already then that I had the potential to solve the ongoing political crisis, because if I’d win a snap primary, I could win and form a government. The prime minister withdrew his support a day later, but I said whenever the race will be, I will be a candidate.
“Last Wednesday, I saw the efforts to form a unity government failed. It was clear to me after the statements of Blue and White and [potential kingmaker Avigdor] Liberman that it would be impossible. I thought about how we could avoid new Knesset elections, in which our national camp could lose power to our political rivals.”
Sa’ar voted for a second election at Netanyahu’s request on May 30 but regretted it.
“The day we initiated the second election was a huge mistake,” he said. “We still had 49 days left to form a government, and we had 60 MKs, so we were only one away. If we worked patiently, it was possible to bring a faction or part of one to our side. Benny Gantz didn’t have any chance then to form a government, and we could have done it in the 21 days after he failed.
Asked whether it was still possible to prevent an election, he said: “My assumption is that, unfortunately, it’s impossible for him to form a government, and I don’t think we will be in a different situation after new elections. Going blindly to a third election looks like madness to me, and the prime minister himself said that a week ago. I thought a snap primary was possible. The prime minister himself spoke about doing it. It would not have been easy, but in 2002, it was done in three weeks. It is only a matter of political will.”
At the time of the interview on Wednesday, Sa’ar said it was still possible to hold the primary if initiated immediately. But Netanyahu did not have to permit a primary that would take place by December 11, because he was elected the Likud’s candidate for prime minister in the current Knesset, and he never answered Sa’ar’s request.
The Likud must hold a primary for its candidate for the next Knesset election whenever it will take place. Netanyahu’s announcement last week that he would permit a primary ahead of that race was therefore no concession.
“If we don’t have [a primary within two weeks], it would be catastrophic for the Israeli economy, society and political stability,” he said. “Avoiding snap primaries is not a punishment for me. It’s a punishment for Israel and its citizens. Everything is stuck. Hatred among different sectors will continue for six more months, and the government cannot allocate funds.”
Speaking before Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein began his mediation between the Likud and Blue and White, Sa’ar said the chances of stopping a third election by forming a unity government instead of by holding a Likud primary are very low. But he expressed support for Edelstein at an event after the interview.
“If a unity government can be formed within 14 days, then primaries will not be necessary anymore,” he said. “Personally, I think chances for that will be close to zero. Jews believe in miracles, but we cannot count on miracles.”
Sa’ar said that according to the law, the prime minister can continue, but it was quite clear he cannot form a government and will not be able to in the foreseeable future. He wished him well in his legal battle to prove his innocence.
“No one can take away his achievements and his merits, and I backed him when he had a chance to form a government,” Sa’ar said. “If he got a majority in the Knesset, I would vote for the government with all the difficulties of running a country and a legal process at the same time, because the legislators found the balance with the need for a functioning government. If the law allows it, and the people wanted it based on how they voted, I’d support it, as difficult as it is.”
Sa’ar also criticized Netanyahu for not changing the legal system during his many years as prime minister, and now complaining that it has harmed him personally.
“The prime minister has been in power for more than 10 years consecutively, and nothing was done,” he said. “A ruling party should work to change the reality according to its policies, using all practical tools it has. Instead of doing that, we are going to demonstrations against the executive branch that we control.”
Sa’ar said he supported electoral reforms in the past to make Israel’s system run better. He backed a plan to enable regional elections for half the Knesset or even a quarter of it at first. But the smaller parties nixed it.
“I hope the time will come when it will be possible to enact reforms in the electoral system,” he said.
Polls show that unlike some of his potential future opponents for the Likud leadership, he has wide support from the general public. He has backing from across the religious spectrum and, despite his traditional right-wing views, from the Center-Left as well.
ASKED ABOUT how he sees US President Donald Trump’s as yet unpresented “Deal of the Century” peace plan, Sa’ar said he does not want to comment on a plan he has not seen. But he revealed that he met twice with US Ambassador David Friedman and told him that it would be a mistake to repeat what other presidents did in basing their plan on what Sa’ar called the “two-state illusion.”
“A Palestinian state would not be a solution, but would cause massive problems, distance peace and cause great harm to stability and Israeli security,” he said.
Sa’ar spoke about the need for Israel to maintain its bipartisan relationship with the US, despite what he said was a pattern of problematic statements by progressive presidential candidates. He said the situation is very different in England, where he said the Jewish community is right to be very worried by developments in the Labour Party under its leader Jeremy Corbyn.
During the time he worked at the Institute for National Security Studies during his break from politics, Sa’ar became an expert on the situation of the Kurds. He declined to criticize Trump’s treatment of them.
“We don’t decide the policies of America on where it will have an army in the Middle East,” he said. “Only antisemites think we decide that. We, of course, preferred that there not be an American withdrawal from Syria. I am in favor of helping the Kurds get independence. They are the biggest people in the world with no state. We should be helping the Kurds’ case in the US, not just for humanitarian reasons but to help the national security of Israel and the US.”
Told that if he becomes prime minister, it is possible that terrorist groups would test him, he said “I don’t recommend testing me.”
He noted that he served in security cabinets as both a minister and cabinet secretary; he was a senior fellow at INSS, where he studied the depth of regional strategy; and for the past six months he has been in the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, where he serves on the elite intelligence subcommittee and heads the subcommittee on foreign policy.
“I have deep knowledge and views on how to act for national security,” he said. “I believe a state cannot permit missile attacks on its citizens. Accommodating the current situation can be taken advantage of by Hamas and Hezbollah to upgrade their military infrastructure.”
Sa’ar warned that Gaza cannot be permitted to become like Lebanon, where Hezbollah has a strong infrastructure. He said it was also right to also prevent Iran from building anti-Israel infrastructure in Syria.
“You have to stop their abilities,” he said. “We allowed Hezbollah to obtain the ability to cause too much of a threat to the Israeli home front. Iran uses proxies, so it’s asymmetric because they are so far away. Iran is building their abilities so we will be encompassed by the fatal abilities of proxies when they reach their nuclear breakthrough. We need to change our security policies to show more initiative and daring and not wait for threats to be intolerable.”
Sa’ar backs a full-scale effort against the terrorist infrastructure of Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza.
“It could take time, but not dealing with it will cause more of a problem in the future,” he said. “That was one of the reasons I backed a unity government. This needs to be a consideration for backing a unity government that is as wide as possible. To deal with the security situation, which is not simple, the nation must be united.”