Gideon Sa’ar, the former no. 2 of the ruling Likud party, on Wednesday afternoon took the fifth slot on the party’s Knesset slate, after returning to politics from a four-year hiatus to run in the party’s Tuesday primaries.
One of the biggest obstacles on Sa’ar’s road back to prominence in the party was Likud’s chairman, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
After the preliminary results from the vote indicated Sa’ar had managed to reach one of the top five slots on the list, he issued a statement thanking Likud members.
“As a difficult and challenging campaign comes to an end, I want to thank Likud’s members for renewing their trust in me, especially after a four-year break from public life, and electing me anew to Likud’s leadership,” the statement said.
“Thank you for your support and love, and for sticking with me, just as I stayed faithful to Likud even in the most difficult periods.”
The last part was likely a reference to full-bore campaign launched by Netanyahu in the days leading up to the primary vote to damage Sa’ar’s prospects.
Sa’ar also said: “I regard the result as my greatest political achievement — far greater even than the two times in the past when I came in first in the primaries. Likud members proved their wisdom and their responsibility to the movement and the nation.”
On Monday, Netanyahu put out a video in which he rehashed claims that Sa’ar and President Reuven Rivlin had hatched a scheme that would see the president sideline Netanyahu after the elections and task Sa’ar with forming a government in his stead. (Israeli law requires only that a prime minister be a serving MK and that the government they lead have the support of the Knesset.)
Sources close to the premier said he was working hard to prevent Sa’ar, a former interior minister for Likud, from emerging at the top of the list.
Sa’ar called the effort a “witch hunt,” saying in a Monday interview with Channel 12, “the prime minister, those working for him, his family — they’re all applying pressure on activists on the ground, municipal leaders and Knesset members who dare to come to our gatherings. The fact that I respect the prime minister as the head of the party and as the prime minister doesn’t mean my good name should be sullied.”
On Wednesday, while he hadn’t attained the top slot on the national list (which is second to the separately elected party chair Netanyahu), Sa’ar called his return to a prominent place on the list “my greatest political achievement, far greater than the two times I was elected to the top spot in the past.”
He praised the ruling party for the primaries’ results.
“Likud has proven its democratic fortitude, and Likud’s members have shown their wisdom and responsibility to the party and the country in choosing an excellent, dignified, experienced and talented leadership team. This is a team that is worthy of leading the State of Israel in the coming years. As of this moment, we all close ranks and work together for Likud’s victory in the general elections on April 9.”
Sa’ar first entered the Knesset as a Likud MK in 2003 and held the posts of education and interior minister before stepping down in 2014. He announced his return to politics in 2017.
Though he has said his ultimate goal is to be prime minister, Sa’ar has publicly pledged to back Netanyahu, a vow he repeated in Monday’s interviews.
According to the Kan public broadcaster, Netanyahu’s efforts to prevent Sa’ar from winning Tuesday’s primaries sparked anger among Likud ministers and MKs, who believe the campaign against Sa’ar strengthened him at their expense by making him appear Netanyahu’s opponent, and thus his equal.