AFP — He looks more like an accountant than a political predator, but on Thursday Gideon Sa’ar will challenge his former mentor Benjamin Netanyahu for the leadership of Israel’s ruling party.
Sa’ar, 53, has been a senior figure in the right-wing Likud for more than a decade and served as a cabinet minister in successive Netanyahu governments.
He is widely seen as ideologically to the right of the country’s longest-serving prime minister, but with a more collegial style.
Having previously worked as a lawyer and journalist, he was brought into politics by Netanyahu in 1999, serving as cabinet secretary for the final few months of Netanyahu’s first government.
He was elected to the Knesset in 2003.
Sa’ar excelled in the 2009 and 2013 Likud roster primaries, coming top of the list of candidates both times. As leader of the party, Netanyahu was not on that list.
But tension was growing between the men.
Netanyahu, 70, has consistently sought to weaken colleagues perceived as potential challengers.
Sa’ar has repeatedly accused his former mentor of sidelining him.
In September 2014, while serving as interior minister under Netanyahu, he abruptly announced he would “take a break” from politics to spend more time with his family.
He gave up his Knesset seat two months later but remained a Likud party member.
Sa’ar is married to prominent TV news anchor Geula Even, with whom he has two young children. They also each have children from previous marriages.
Throughout his time out of the spotlight, Sa’ar was widely considered the largest threat to Netanyahu from inside Likud.
In April 2017, he announced his return to politics.
“I took a break to be with the family and deal with other challenges,” he said. “It was the best, most comfortable, most quiet time. But even good things have an end.”
After winning fourth place in a February 2019 primary, he was returned to the Knesset in general elections in April and September, although the results of those national polls did not allow Likud or its centrist opponents to form a government.
An unprecedented third national election in less than a year is to be held on March 2, with the winner of Thursday’s primary set to lead Likud into those polls.
Last year Netanyahu, in a clear reference to his former protege, said “a former Likud minister has been holding discussions with the coalition and concocted a subversive plot” to oust him.
Although he did not explicitly name him, Sa’ar publicly denied the charge.
Then in October, after Netanyahu floated the prospect of a leadership primary within Likud, Sa’ar nailed his flag firmly to the mast with a two-word tweet.
“I’m ready,” he wrote.
The idea of holding a primary was shelved until earlier this month when a vote was set for December 26.
Sa’ar officially launched his campaign earlier this month, warning that a third Netanyahu failure to form a government could send Likud into the opposition.
“If we do not make a change, we are getting close to a left-wing government,” he warned.
“If you believe Likud and its path should lead the state of Israel, vote for me,” he added, arguing he had the “knowledge and experience… to lead Israel into the next decade.”
The challenger is seen as more restrained in style than Netanyahu.
“He is not so negative and brutal,” said Gideon Rahat, a political science professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “He is more of a gentleman.”
“The second difference is there are no corruption allegations” against him, he told AFP.
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit last month announced bribery, fraud and breach of trust charges against Netanyahu. He has denies all wrongdoing, blaming a witch hunt.
Under Israeli law, Netanyahu would not have to resign as prime minister unless convicted with all appeals exhausted.
Sa’ar has called for legislation to restrain the Supreme Court in its rulings on constitutional issues and he favors annexing West Bank settlements.
“He is trying to outflank the prime minister from the right,” said Ofer Zalzberg, senior Middle East analyst for the International Crisis Group.
Recent polls have suggested that if Sa’ar were to lead Likud the party might have fewer seats but the overall right-wing bloc in parliament might increase in size.
“Gideon Sa’ar can actually build the next coalition,” said Sharren Haskel, one of the few Likud lawmakers to publicly announce their support for him.
Sa’ar has challenged Netanyahu to hold a debate on policy, but the premier has not responded.