AnalysisMost Israelis are centrists and party agnostics. They are simply looking for a leader they can trust

For Netanyahu, another enemy at the gates

Gideon Sa’ar’s stunning resignation is the most dramatic signal yet of a fundamental shift in Israelis’ political loyalties and behavior

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

File: Then-interior minister Gideon Sa'ar at a press conference announcing he was resigning from the cabinet and Knesset and taking a break from politics, September 17, 2014. (Flash90)
File: Then-interior minister Gideon Sa'ar at a press conference announcing he was resigning from the cabinet and Knesset and taking a break from politics, September 17, 2014. (Flash90)

Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar, the second-most powerful man in the Likud, abruptly left politics on Wednesday.

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 Kfar Hamaccabiya.

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.”

Sa’ar’s name has made few headlines outside Israel. His domestic focus — he has served as education and interior minister — and his distaste for grandstanding populism have made him an unexciting figure for the foreign press, which prefers the generous helpings of headline-grabbing rhetoric served up daily by the likes of fellow Likud MKs Miri Regev and Danny Danon.

But Sa’ar is one of the most talented political organizers in the country, and he holds an outsize influence over the Likud rank and file.

The most recent demonstration of his popularity took place at the very event in which he announced his retirement. The event followed a week of internal sniping in the party. Danon, who chairs the Likud’s Central Committee, convened that committee in Ashkelon on Tuesday in a bid to pass a resolution meant to chastise Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for failing to “defeat” Hamas in the summer’s war in Gaza. In response, Netanyahu convened a counter-gathering of Likud ministers and activists as a snub to Danon and a message to the party — which is painfully aware that Netanyahu is more popular than the party itself among actual voters.

Deputy Defense Minister and Likud MK Danny Danon speaks at the 4th Likud Party conference at Ganei HaTaarucha in Tel-Aviv, May 07, 2014. Photo by Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Deputy Defense Minister and Likud MK Danny Danon speaks at the 4th Likud Party conference at Ganei HaTaarucha in Tel-Aviv, May 07, 2014. Photo by Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The events were sparsely attended, drawing a few hundred mostly-bored party faithful.

Sa’ar’s Wednesday toast, which promised no comparable excitement or political one-upmanship, drew over 1,000 people, more than the Netanyahu and Danon events combined. A simple invitation from Sa’ar drew more of the party’s activists than the other two men’s political machines could muster with effort.

Sa’ar also made sure neither Netanyahu nor the hawkish troublemaker Danon could fail to notice that fact.

“We could have been spared [the spectacle of] the two poorly attended events if both of you had just come here,” he told Danon point-blank Wednesday, in a comment publicized by a political reporter standing nearby (Hebrew link).

And in his half-hour resignation speech, which failed to mention the prime minister once — indeed, Netanyahu learned about the resignation of one of his senior ministers at the same time as the rest of us — Sa’ar offered more than a few hints that his retirement was unlikely to be permanent.

“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 with pathos.

The resignation has led to a firestorm of speculation in the Israeli press that took the predictable paths.

Those who see corruption everywhere talked openly about a soon-to-be-published profile of Sa’ar in the Haaretz daily, speculating that it might contain information so scandalous that Sa’ar decided to quit in advance. But the Haaretz profile, according to sources, is expected to be entirely unexciting — and in any case, as many political pundits are pointing out, quitting hardly prevents its publication or neutralizes its fallout.

Some are urging Israelis to believe Sa’ar’s explicit reason for the resignation. “Soon David [Sa’ar’s infant son] will start to walk, and I want to be at his side to walk with him hand in hand,” he said. And, indeed, it’s not really so incredible that a 47-year-old man who saw a previous marriage fall apart partly because of the demands of his political career should want to make a better go of his new marriage (to television news anchor Geula Even) and second round of fatherhood.

But there is another factor in Sa’ar’s resignation, a pattern into which his decision fits neatly — and it signals a dramatic shift in the Israeli political landscape.

Two years ago, the popular Likud communications minister Moshe Kahlon made a similar announcement at a similar event, and, like Sa’ar, did so at the height of his influence.

Sa’ar’s resignation speech on Wednesday was peppered with curiously incongruent comments for a resigning politician. “I wanted to leave two years ago,” he told his supporters, but Kahlon had upstaged him.

This moment, he seemed to suggest, was connected to that one. Kahlon, it should be noted, has been gathering allies and preparing to launch a new political party — which has polled at around 10 Knesset seats before anyone has even seen its platform or heard its name.

Then, turning to another respected but out-of-work politician at his event, former Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter, Sa’ar quipped that the “injustice” in Dichter’s failure to enter the Knesset in the last election would be corrected in the next one — another strange statement for a man announcing a “break” from politics.

And yet another incongruity: The event was attended by dozens of local leaders, mayors and regional council members, for whom the interior minister looms large in their political and professional calculations, who were specially invited by Sa’ar’s office.

In other words, Sa’ar announced his retirement at an event that bore all the hallmarks and careful organization of a political rally. Had Sa’ar announced last night that he was challenging Netanyahu for the Likud leadership, reporters would have praised the setting as a successful and well-timed show of force.

It has already been noted that Israeli politics are no longer driven by parties, but rather by personalities. Netanyahu is more popular than his Likud party — so much so that the main competitors for its voter base, Jewish Home and Yesh Atid, signaled during their election campaign in January 2013 that they would support Netanyahu for premier, that a vote for them was also a vote for Netanyahu. The strategy worked. Netanyahu dominates Israeli politics, even as he now heads Israel’s second-largest party (Sa’ar’s resignation pushes the Likud’s Knesset showing down to 18 seats). In the largest party, the 19-seat Yesh Atid, the party leader’s dominance is even more pronounced. Yesh Atid has few institutions and no distinct political identity beyond its founder and chairman, Finance Minister Yair Lapid.

Even on the ideological right, personality now trumps party in voters’ minds. Jewish Home massively increased its Knesset showing from three to 12 seats in the last election, with its charismatic new leader Naftali Bennett attracting many tens of thousands of new voters who subsequently told pollsters they do not necessarily agree with the party’s actual stances or ideology.

And on the left, it is no accident that struggling Labor has seen eight leadership changes since 2001. Hope springs eternal among the party faithful — and just a year into the term of party leader Isaac Herzog some of these faithful already pine for another shift. Not in policy or message, of course, but in the form of popular Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai.

Israeli elections are still decided by votes for parties, and so polls and much of Israel’s political punditry focus on the ebbing fortunes of those parties. But in a deep sense, such calculations are a distraction from the true drivers of political power. The steady shift away from party loyalty has fundamentally changed the country’s political landscape. Ideology no longer defines political behavior. Most Israelis are centrists and party agnostics. They are simply looking for a leader they can trust.

Ariel Sharon may have been the first to take full advantage of this reality when he abandoned Likud in late 2005 to form the centrist Kadima, whose widespread support rested purely on its founder’s personal popularity. Lapid also grasped the significance of this change and used it to great effect in his run for the current Knesset.

Sa’ar’s resignation suggests that the generation-long shift to personality-based politics may be complete. It is no longer Israel’s failed or unpopular politicians who are resigning, but its most popular and influential — and at the height of their power. For the past two election cycles, Sa’ar led the Likud primaries after Netanyahu, followed both times by Gilad Erdan (now the communications minister) in third place. It is no coincidence, and should not be a surprise, that Erdan, too, is weighing his own resignation from politics in order to become Israel’s next ambassador to the UN.

This vast shift explains Netanyahu’s iron hold on Likud. No party can afford to dislodge the leader who alone guarantees its continued success at the ballot box.

But Netanyahu’s immobility carries a price for the party. As other Likud politicians become popular brands in their own right, as they grow in power and influence, the party can no longer contain them. The result: some of the most potent political powers in the country no longer reside within the halls of the Knesset. It is outside those halls, beyond any ministerial post or established national political framework, that political capital now goes to bide its time. There, beyond party or parliament, stand Kahlon and Sa’ar, and perhaps soon Erdan as well.

Israel’s sitting leaders once eyed warily the rising political stars in their own parties. Today that eye is turned outward, to the political powers gathering outside, waiting to strike.

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