Gideon Sa’ar quits coalition after Netanyahu fails to appoint him to war cabinet

2 weeks after splitting with Gantz, minister leaves government, saying he has ‘no practical ability to influence the direction of policy’

Sam Sokol is the Times of Israel's political correspondent. He was previously a reporter for the Jerusalem Post, Jewish Telegraphic Agency and Haaretz. He is the author of "Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews"

MK Gideon Sa'ar attends a faction meeting of the National Unity Party at the Knesset, July 10, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)
MK Gideon Sa'ar attends a faction meeting of the National Unity Party at the Knesset, July 10, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

New Hope chair Gideon Sa’ar announced his four-seat party’s departure from the coalition on Monday evening, two weeks after dissolving his political alliance with Benny Gantz, after his demands to be appointed to the high-level war cabinet were not met.

Declaring that his party had not joined the emergency government following October 7 in order to “warm chairs,” Sa’ar stated that, while he had previously set aside his disagreements with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his coalition for “the good of the country,” the government had so far failed to achieve its war aims in Gaza and he felt that he had no ability to influence its prosecution of the conflict.

The coalition now shrinks from 76 to 72 seats in the 120-member Knesset, and thus Sa’ar’s departure poses no immediate threat to its stability. However, it may boost pressure on Gantz to quit the emergency government, too.

According to widespread Hebrew media reports, Netanyahu was open to the possibility of adding Sa’ar to the war cabinet — made up of the premier, Gantz, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, and a few other observers — but was pulled up short by far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, who said that if Sa’ar was added to the war cabinet, he demanded to be brought in too.

“I believed and I still believe that [our goals] are ambitious but achievable,” Sa’ar said, and “our soldiers have fought and are fighting bravely.” But under Netanyahu, military progress has slowed down, prolonging the campaign, he argued.

“To destroy the military power of Hamas, it was necessary to act on a faster schedule,” he continued, and slowing down the campaign has eroded Jerusalem’s leverage to reach a deal to secure the release of its hostages. He called the manner in which the government has managed the war “contrary to the national interest.”

“Hamas’s takeover of humanitarian aid also distances us from the overthrow of its rule. We have been warning about this for months,” he asserted, complaining that “the navigation of the campaign was largely taken away from the security cabinet,” of which he is a member, “in favor of the limited war cabinet.”

“Therefore, we demanded two weeks ago to join the war cabinet so that I could bring to the table my experience from five cabinets over the last 25 years,” he stated.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to then-education minister Gideon Sa’ar, as they arrive at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, on August 26, 2012. (AP Photo/Uriel Sinai/Getty Images, Pool, File)

“But I cannot bear responsibility as long as I have no…practical ability to influence the direction of policy. I just don’t see any use in it anymore. We did not come to the government to warm chairs. We came to the government — which we opposed — to help the people of Israel in a difficult time,” Sa’ar said.

His announcement comes some two weeks after the former senior Likud member announced the breakup of his alliance with Gantz under National Unity, formed ahead of the previous election in 2022.

Explaining at the time that Gantz and his colleagues did “not convey the voice, positions and emphasis” that he would bring to the war cabinet, Sa’ar demanded to be appointed to the narrow decision-making body.

The war cabinet currently has three voting members: Netanyahu, Gantz, and Gallant. National Unity’s Gadi Eisenkot is an observer, as are Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer and ultra-Orthodox Shas party leader Aryeh Deri, both confidantes of Netanyahu.

Last week, Sa’ar said during a faction meeting at the Knesset: “In the first week of the war, I prioritized the establishment of the emergency government over my membership in the limited [war] cabinet,” but “we no longer have this privilege.” He called his split with Gantz an “opportunity to try and influence a change in the direction of the war and to make our voice heard.”

Turning to Gantz during his comments on Monday evening, Sa’ar criticized his erstwhile ally’s apparent opposition to his demand to join the war cabinet. Gantz had reacted to it by citing to reporters the English phrase: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

National Unity party chair Benny Gantz holds a press conference at the Knesset in Jerusalem, March 13, 2024.(Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

“In other words: everything’s working fine — so why change,” Sa’ar noted wryly. “But the general public does not think so. It identifies with the goals of the war, but understands that a change of direction is required to achieve them.

“In such circumstances, when the suffering of the people is so heavy and after almost six months of fighting, it is better [for us] to be a clear voice outside the government and even to challenge it in the public discourse on the subject of the war,” he stated.

Sa’ar’s New Hope party, which has four seats, merged with Gantz’s Blue and White, which has eight, in July 2022. The newly formed National Unity alliance then joined Netanyahu’s coalition as an emergency measure at the start of the war — bolstering the coalition from 64 of the Knesset’s 120 seats to 76. Gantz’s party now continues to operate under the name National Unity despite the recent split.

Before that, both parties had refused to sit with Netanyahu, who is on trial in three corruption cases. Both accused him and his coalition of trying to undermine Israel’s democracy with their highly divisive judicial overhaul that has since been suspended.

Under the deal that saw National Unity join the government in October, five members of the alliance were added to the broader security cabinet that operates under every government: Gantz, Eisenkot and Chili Tropper of Blue and White, and Sa’ar and Yifat Shasha-Biton of New Hope.

In addition, Gantz was appointed to Netanyahu’s narrow war cabinet and Eisenkot was named as an observer.

Following Sa’ar’s split from Gantz, polls showed that the New Hope leader could struggle in elections despite positioning himself as an alternative leader of the “statesmanlike right.”

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