In September 2014, Gideon Sa’ar, Israel’s interior minister and the second-most powerful figure in the governing Likud party, abruptly left politics.
The setting for his announcement was carefully chosen: a New Year’s toast for his supporters that drew over 1,000 people to an event hall in the Likud hotspot of Kfar Maccabiah.
His statement was blunt. “After I considered, thought, consulted a great deal and did some serious thinking, I decided to take a break from political life,” he told the crowd to sudden, stunned silence. “Today, I want to enjoy a little more privacy, quiet and freedom. I feel this is the right thing for me, and for those I love.… On the eve of a new year, I intend to set out on a new path.”
But, in his half-hour resignation speech, Sa’ar offered more than a few hints that his retirement was unlikely to be permanent, as well as an implicit biting criticism of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose once-warm relationship with Sa’ar had soured.
“The people are struggling. The cost of living, the cost of housing. We must not hurt education; we must not hurt welfare; we must not hurt health; we must not hurt the weaker parts of society… The people gave us their trust time after time. We must not disappoint them,” he declared.
Sa’ar, indeed, did not disappoint his supporters. But it would be over two years before he would tell his team that “we need to start working on the comeback,” and a full five years until he announced, two months ago, that he was “ready” to challenge Netanyahu to lead both the Likud party and the country.
“It is true that I have not been the prime minister but I feel ready with my extensive political, state, parliamentary, and ministerial experience to be a candidate for prime minister.”
Speaking to The Times of Israel on Monday, which happened to be his 53rd birthday, Sa’ar said he had thought about the possibility of becoming prime minister for “many years,” but it was only during his break from political life that he finally made the decision to fully pursue Israel’s top political job.
“There is a difference between wanting something and when you must have it. Wanting something is not enough. You need to be driven,” he said, carefully choosing his words, of the dream to become prime minister.
And, according to Sa’ar, he has the ability and experience to succeed in the job, not just the will.
“I have very rich experience at various decision-making positions. I headed the largest and most complex government ministries. There is no committee that I was not a member of. I do not only have ministerial experience, I also have rich parliamentary experience. I promoted reforms, I set up coalitions, I brought down governments,” he said. “It is true that I have not been the prime minister, but I feel ready with my extensive political, state, parliamentary, and ministerial experience to be a candidate for prime minister.”
Sa’ar’s name has made few headlines outside Israel. His domestic focus — he has served as education minister as well as at the interior ministry — and his distaste for grandstanding populism have made him an unexciting figure for the foreign press.
Within Likud, however, his star has been rising for the last two decades.
A former lawyer and journalist, Sa’ar was brought into politics in 1999 by Netanyahu, who made him his cabinet secretary during his first term in office, and was first elected to the Knesset in 2003. After winning the Likud primary for its electoral list in the 2009 election and therefore placing in the spot behind Netanyahu (a feat he repeated four years later in the primary for the 2013 elections), and following Netanyahu’s victory in the national vote, he was appointed a minister, remaining in the cabinet until stepping down in 2014.
While many in the party welcomed Sa’ar’s recent return to politics, Netanyahu spurned him, claiming publicly that his former protegé intends to “steal” the premiership from him, and actively campaigning against him in the party primary leading up to April’s election. On Sunday, he was booed by Netanyahu supporters at a gathering of the Likud Central Election Committee, and hecklers interrupted his speech with cries of “Bibi, Bibi” — the prime minister’s nickname.
Sa’ar said he was not surprised, or particularly bothered.
“Before I took a break from political life in 2014, and even more so after I returned in 2017, they have been trying to harm me and delegitimize me — publicly too, not just behind the scenes.” “They,” he elaborated, “includes the prime minister himself, the prime minister’s son, those who are close to him, the [party] apparatus. That’s how they work,” he said tersely.
“When you are sure of yourself and your path is clear and you know that there will be challenges… it’s possible — though not without difficulty — to deal with these challenges,” Sa’ar said. “It’s very difficult to attain the leadership without some form of confrontation.”
Flanked by a huge Israeli flag and a photo of the Revisionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky in his Knesset office, Sa’ar said he was running in order to revive Likud’s “democratic tradition” that he said was under threat.
‘I believe there needs to be a change, that there needs to be a turning point in order to save the country from this deadlock and so that we can form a government and also so that we can unite the people of Israel. That is perhaps the most important thing today.’
Having held his peace for the past two years, even as attacks against him increased, Sa’ar waited carefully for the right moment to launch his challenge to Netanyahu. Shying away from criticizing the prime minister’s legal troubles, despite him facing indictment in three criminal cases, Sa’ar is arguing instead that Netanyahu’s inability to decisively win the last two elections proves the party needs new blood at the top.
“The legislature has clearly said that he can continue to serve under indictment,” Sa’ar said of Netanyahu, trying to avoid addressing the specific allegations against the prime minister when asked why he was going after his party leader for failing to form a government but not for his alleged misdemeanors.
After Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced indictments against Netanyahu in the three corruption cases, the prime minister held a press conference in which he accused prosecutors of seeking to oust him from power with false charges in an “attempted coup.” Netanyahu claimed that the investigation had been tainted by various improprieties and accused law enforcement authorities of “selective enforcement” against him. “Investigate the investigators,” he demanded.
His political allies soon took up the refrain, but Sa’ar, becoming the first Likud MK to do so, criticized Netanyahu for the tone of his response, saying, “This is not an attempted coup. That is not accurate… It is irresponsible to make this claim. It harms the Likud’s statesmanlike approach.”
Pressed on Monday as to whether he believed the prime minister’s claim that the investigation against him was tainted by a left-wing and anti-democratic state prosecution, Sa’ar scoffed at both Netanyahu’s alleged mistreatment and his criticism.
‘I think that it should be remembered that these are organs of the executive branch. The prime minister is the head of the executive branch. As the ruling party, we have the responsibility to correct the executive branch and our correction should not be by having demonstrations, but by enacting reforms we feel are necessary.’
“This [concern over aspects of the state prosecution hierarchy] has been my agenda for many years. It was never Netanyahu’s agenda. He is discovering it now. I respect it, but I am talking about bigger things. Let’s put it this way: I know of much worse misdoings [than those charged by Netanyahu in his case]. I am talking about basic matters [in the state prosecution] that need to be corrected,” he said.
Regarding those alleged systemic problems, Sa’ar said the approach should be “to fix and not to destroy” the system.
“I think that it should be remembered that these are arms of the executive branch. The prime minister is the head of the executive branch. As the ruling party, we have the responsibility to correct the executive branch and our correction should not be by having demonstrations, but by enacting reforms we feel are necessary,” he said, alluding to recent protests against the state prosecution by pro-Netanyahu activists.
“I have very deep criticism of elements of the law enforcement… but I want to correct them and the way to correct them is in a statesmanlike way,” he said.
Asked if he would vote in favor of a request, if made, by Netanyahu to receive parliamentary immunity and not face trial, Sa’ar remained cagey, saying it was inappropriate to make a decision before hearing both sides.
In Sa’ar’s careful telling, the need for a new Likud leader, and indeed a new prime minister, does not stem for the indictments but “because the country is simply stuck. It has been stuck for a year. If we go to elections in two days, it will continue, let’s say, for at least another half a year. We are paying a heavy economic price, the citizens of Israel are paying a heavy price,” Sa’ar said before adding a tacit criticism of Netanyahu’s often divisive campaigning. “The divisions in society are getting wider and will widen in an election. That worries me even more than the economic damage.
“I believe there needs to be a change, that there needs to be a turning point in order to save the country from this deadlock — so that we can form a government and also so that we can unite the people of Israel. That [need for unity] is perhaps the most important thing today,” he said.