There is currently no need to establish new Jewish communities in the West Bank, the former minister and self-declared future prime ministerial candidate Gideon Sa’ar says. At the same time, Sa’ar supports annexing the territory where the existing settlements are located, and predicts that Israel will indeed apply sovereignty in those areas in less than a decade.
“I think the settlements need to develop. We need to strengthen the existing communities and respond to their natural needs. I don’t think that today there is a need to establish new settlements,” Sa’ar told The Times of Israel, in a recent interview in the lobby of Jerusalem’s King David Hotel.
In this context, the former minister praised the informal agreement that Jerusalem reached with the US administration last year, which allows Israel to build an unlimited number of housing units within existing West Bank communities, but which curtails the expansion of settlements beyond their current municipal “footprint.”
“I don’t support freezing the development of Israeli settlements,” said Sa’ar, who himself resides in northern Tel Aviv. “These are communities that need to be allowed to live a normal life.”
That he currently sees no need to create new settlements in the West Bank does not mean he is ideologically opposed to the idea, he stressed.
“But I think there are [existing] settlements, which have certain development needs,” he said. “There are many things that were held up over the years. It’s more important and proper to worry about the needs of existing settlements, which are manifold.”
Until he quit politics in 2014 to spend more time with his family, Sa’ar was a rising star in the Likud party, with analysts considering him a top contender for the premiership in a post-Netanyahu era. He continued to enjoy high popularity among Likud activists, even during his time away from politics (Sa’ar announced his return to the arena last April).
Netanyahu is doing a good job. The country today is in a much better shape than it was nine years ago
Given the fraught relationship he had had with Benjamin Netanyahu, some expected Sa’ar to challenge the prime minister for the leadership of the Likud. But Sa’ar did no such thing, and continues to back Netanyahu, even after police recommended indicting him in two counts of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust.
“Prime Minister Netanyahu is doing a good job. The country today is in much better shape than it was nine years ago,” he said on Sunday, at an event hosted by the UK’s Zionist Federation in London.
Speaking to The Times of Israel, Sa’ar did not hide his previous differences with Netanyahu, saying he never hesitated to speak his mind. He did, however, refuse to say whether he thinks the prime minister can continue to serve, if he is indicted for corruption charges.
Sa’ar said he will only express himself on that matter if and when Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit decides to indict Netanyahu.
As interior minister, Sa’ar passed a law forcing mayors to quit as soon as they are indicted. But the same principle — that elected leaders suspected of crimes cannot remain in office — does not necessarily apply to prime ministers, he argued.
“It’s not the same thing,” he said. The current law, which says that a prime minister only has to go home after he or she has been convicted of a crime, “was designed to stabilize the country,” according to Sa’ar.
Though he defended Netanyahu, Sa’ar was also adamant that he intends to run for the leadership, not only of the Likud, but of the entire country.
“Netanyahu needs to be backed, and I am patient,” he said. “When the time comes, I will present my candidacy, and the public will decide.”
Citing his past positions as cabinet secretary, minister, and member of the security cabinet, Sa’ar argued that he is “the most experienced” of all the other candidates for the Likud chairmanship. While he has never held one of the three top ministerial portfolios — foreign, defense, or finance — neither have some of the other potential contestants for the job, he noted.
What Sa’ar certainly does have in common with most of his Likud colleagues is his rejection of Palestinian statehood.
“There is no two-state solution; there is at most a two-state slogan,” he said Sunday in London. “It is not for nothing that 25 years of negotiations on the basis of this idea have not brought us closer to peace, security, or stability. 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.”
Rather, he calls for Israel to annex parts of the West Bank and grant the Palestinians living in other parts of the territory some autonomy that will allow them to govern themselves, albeit without full sovereignty.
“I am convinced that 10 years from today, at the most, [Israeli] law will be applied [to Israeli settlements],” Sa’ar, 51, said. “Maybe much sooner than that. Because the current situation cannot possibly go on like this for a long time.”
There are many Israeli citizens who live outside the 1967 lines, which means that Israeli law does not apply to them, he lamented, adding that during his time as interior minister (between 2013 and 2014), he witnessed many problems arise from the fact that the Knesset is not the sovereign in the West Bank (the settlements are governed by orders issued by the military).
The status quo, with Palestinian “entities” that are less than regular states in Gaza and parts of the West Bank, is preferable to the creation of a Palestinian state, “which will obviously be dysfunctional and not economically viable,” he said.
Let’s assume there is a Palestinian state in the West Bank. Who can guarantee us that this territory would not be flooded by Palestinians?
In fact, he argued, allowing the Palestinians to control their borders would jeopardize Israel’s security, and also spell a grave demographic threat for the Jewish state.
Sa’ar dismissed the opposite argument, often made by proponents of a two-state solution, that a failure to establish a Palestinian state threatens a Jewish majority within Israel. Israel does not rule over the Palestinians of Gaza or the West Bank, and therefore cannot be forced to extend Israeli citizenship to them, he said, countering fears that, deprived of their own state, the Palestinians would demand equal rights in Israel proper.
“But let’s assume there is a Palestinian state in the West Bank. Who can guarantee us that this territory would not be flooded by Palestinians? After all [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas] says he wants to bring in masses of refugees,” he said.
“The [demographic] balance between Jews and Arabs in the space between the Mediterranean and the Jordan river would quickly turn to our detriment.”
As an alternative to a Palestinian state, Sa’ar proposes that the territory of the PA be “somehow connected to the Kingdom of Jordan, in some sort of federation or confederation.”
The Palestinians and Jordanians vehemently reject any such solution, but the Arab-Israeli conflict is patient, and there is no need to rush, Sa’ar said, adding that in the meantime, the status quo is totally acceptable.
Two Palestinian “entities” that rule over their own populations, and Israel controlling the territory it considers crucial for its security “is not bad for Israel,” he said. “It’s actually much better than the other alternatives that I know of that are on the table.”