Gideon Sa’ar, longtime Netanyahu ally, emerges as his primary challenger

Unlike previous centrist adversaries of the prime minister, the latest contender reconfigures the political playing field by ‘attacking from the right’

In this August 26, 2012, photo, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, speaks to then Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar as they arrive at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. (AP Photo/Uriel Sinai/Getty Images, Pool, File)
In this August 26, 2012, photo, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, speaks to then Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar as they arrive at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. (AP Photo/Uriel Sinai/Getty Images, Pool, File)

For years, Gideon Sa’ar was one of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s most loyal and vocal supporters, serving as cabinet secretary and a senior minister.

Now, the telegenic Sa’ar, armed with extraordinary political savvy and a searing grudge against his former boss, could prove to be Netanyahu’s greatest challenge.

After breaking away from the ruling Likud party to form his own faction, Sa’ar is running against Netanyahu in the March elections and has emerged as the long-serving leader’s top rival.

The challenge caps the stunning decline of the Sa’ar-Netanyahu relationship, pitting a cunning political mind against his former mentor in a deeply personal battle drenched in past grievances.

A secular resident of culturally liberal Tel Aviv with a celebrity news anchor wife, Sa’ar, 54, is a hardline nationalist long seen as an heir to the Likud leadership. After unsuccessfully challenging Netanyahu in a party leadership race and then being denied a government position as retribution, Sa’ar last month broke out on his own. He said his aim was to topple Netanyahu for turning Likud into a tool for personal survival at a time when he is on trial on corruption charges.

In this October 3, 2019 file photo, Gideon Sa’ar, attends the swearing-in of the new Israeli parliament in Jerusalem. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit, File)

Sa’ar’s chances of becoming prime minister in the next elections are far from certain and polling forecasts his New Hope party coming in second place after Likud. But his entry into the race reconfigures the playing field and could complicate Netanyahu’s task of forming a coalition government, perhaps sidelining the Israeli leader after more than a decade at the helm.

“If there’s someone who can beat Netanyahu it is Gideon Sa’ar,” said Sharren Haskel, a former Likud lawmaker who quit the party to join Sa’ar. “He is the only one who can stand up against Netanyahu because of his ideology, his experience and his capabilities.”

Haskel, together with other Sa’ar allies in Likud, concocted a plan to thwart a bill that might have averted elections. In a late-night maneuver last month, they defied the party by skipping the vote or voting against the bill, catching Netanyahu off guard and prompting the government’s collapse. They even coordinated the move with members of opposing parties who hid in the Knesset parking lot until moments before the vote, attesting to Sa’ar’s political savvy, the lengths he is prepared to go to bring down Netanyahu and his potential ability to reach across the aisle.

While Sa’ar has brought hope to some that Netanyahu’s rule is on the rocks, a victory would probably not mean significant changes in policies, particularly toward the Palestinians. Sa’ar, like Netanyahu, is deep in the right-wing camp and opposes a Palestinian state.

Ze’ev Elkin announces his resignation from Likud as he joins Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope party, December 23, 2020 (video screenshot)

These right-wing credentials appear to be playing to his favor. Contrary to other recent Netanyahu challengers who have tried to appeal to a broader, centrist swath of Israelis, Sa’ar is siphoning away both the votes of disillusioned Netanyahu supporters as well as Likud lawmakers. At least four defectors have joined him, including former Netanyahu confidant Ze’ev Elkin.

“He is attacking from the right,” said Hebrew University political scientist Reuven Hazan. “It is a different game entirely.”

Three previous elections since 2019 ended in deadlock between Netanyahu and his then-challenger, former military chief Benny Gantz. The most recent vote in March culminated in a power-sharing agreement that crumbled last month after months of dysfunction.

MK Benny Gantz, head of Blue and White (left) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, head of Likud, sign their unity government agreement on April 20, 2020. (GPO)

Sa’ar entered politics in 1999, serving as cabinet secretary in the first Netanyahu government. He became a Likud legislator in 2002 and remained loyal to the party and Netanyahu, even when the party plummeted in 2006 elections.

After Netanyahu’s return to the premiership in 2009, Sa’ar held the powerful posts of education and interior minister, pushing hardline policies against illegal migrants alongside a more socially liberal doctrine that extended public education to preschoolers. He repeatedly won the top spot in Likud party primaries, just beneath Netanyahu.

After marrying popular Israeli news anchor Geula Even-Sa’ar — a second marriage for both of them — he took a five-year hiatus from public life. Sa’ar returned to politics in 2019, but was promptly confined to the backbenches after he challenged Netanyahu in a Likud primary.

Gideon Sa’ar with his wife, TV anchor Geula Even, at his Likud leadership campaign opening event in Or Yehuda, December 16, 2019. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

Now, freed from Netanyahu’s grasp on Likud, Sa’ar may have a fighting chance.

In announcing his departure, Sa’ar said he could no longer serve under Netanyahu.

“A change in the country’s leadership is needed,” Sa’ar said. “Today, Israel needs unity and stability. Netanyahu can’t, and won’t be able to, provide either.”

Since he bolted, Likud has tried to paint Sa’ar as a leftist in disguise, but his record indicates otherwise.

Sa’ar has been a longtime opponent of the two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians, the longstanding international consensus for ending the conflict.

“He is more right-wing than Bibi by far,” said political analyst Avraham Diskin, who said he has known Sa’ar for years. He was referring to Netanyahu by his nickname. “But he is a pragmatic person, not a fanatic. He is cautious and level-headed,” he said, indicating that he may rein himself in under pressure from the international community.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) in the Knesset on July 29, 2013, with Naftali Bennett (left) and Gideon Sa’ar. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Sa’ar supports building up West Bank settlements and annexing parts of the West Bank, while granting some autonomy to the Palestinians living in the territory. That would fall far short of their demands for an independent state that includes all of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza. Israel captured the three areas in 1967, though it withdrew from Gaza in 2005.

“There is no two-state solution; there is at most a two-state slogan,” Sa’ar told the Times of Israel in 2018. “The establishment of a Palestinian state a few miles away from Ben-Gurion Airport and Israel’s major population centers would create a security and demographic danger to Israel.”

While some Israelis who don’t espouse those views are still eager to support Sa’ar as a replacement to Netanyahu, others say his rise only elevates another hardline nationalist.

“The next prime minister of Israel will be a full-blown total man of the right, uncompromising and pitiless,” far-left columnist Gideon Levy wrote in the Haaretz daily. “The choice is between two ultra-nationalists, Netanyahu or Sa’ar: Bibi or Gidi. There probably will be no other viable candidate. This is a dismal reality, but a very sobering one.”

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