Jabbing at Netanyahu from right, challenger Sa’ar rips Jerusalem-area ‘freeze’

Ahead of leadership vote, would-be Likud leader calls for construction in Givat Hamatos to block Palestinian state; on West Bank settlement visit, PM vows Israel ‘won’t leave here’

Likud MK Gideon Sa'ar speaks with media on December 19, 2019, at the Givat HaMatos hill, a neighborhood under development in an area of Jerusalem captured by Israel in the 1967 war. (Noam Rivkin Fenton/Flash90)
Likud MK Gideon Sa'ar speaks with media on December 19, 2019, at the Givat HaMatos hill, a neighborhood under development in an area of Jerusalem captured by Israel in the 1967 war. (Noam Rivkin Fenton/Flash90)

MK Gideon Sa’ar on Thursday called for Israel to ramp up construction in contested areas around Jerusalem, in a further apparent effort to outflank Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from the right ahead of Likud party leadership primaries next week.

Touring Givat Hamatos, situated between Gilo Talpiot and Beit Safafa neighborhoods, Sa’ar called for an end to the “construction freeze” there and in the E1 area near Jerusalem, suggesting Netanyahu’s vows to build have been empty ones.

“The future of Jerusalem will be decided through actions, not words,” Sa’ar said, adding that “this location has strategic significance.”

Givat Hamatos is the last remaining land reserve in East Jerusalem that would allow for territorial contiguity from Arab neighborhoods in the Israeli capital to the major West Bank city of Bethlehem just to its south.

In 2012 and 2014, the Jerusalem local Planning and Construction Committee advanced a series of plans that would eventually see the building of over 5,000 housing units in Givat Hamatos. However, ground has not yet been broken for those projects due to what is widely believed as European Union pressure.

A picture taken on July 4, 2016, shows a mobile cabin in the Jewish neighborhood of Givat Hamatos, in East Jerusalem. (AFP Photo/Thomas Coex)

Sa’ar said building up Givat Hamatos would help thwart the creation of a Palestinian state, which he opposes.

“Construction here will damage the territorial contiguity that the Palestinians are striving for and will be a barrier to the establishment of a Palestinian state,” he said. “That is why there is also diplomatic pressure, European mainly, to prevent construction for Jews here.”

Sa’ar, who was led on the tour by far-right Jerusalem councilman Aryeh King, also said new homes were needed in Givat Hamatos to preserve the “demographic balance” in the city.

“The demographic balance between the Jewish majority and Arab minority over the last decade has changed for the worse,” he said.

As part of his long-shot bid to replace Netanyahu as Likud leader, Sa’ar has staked out right-wing stances on diplomatic issues, criticizing the premier for not carrying out the court-approved demolition of a Bedouin village in the West Bank when he visited there last week.

Netanyahu is believed to have refrained from razing Khan al-Ahmar or building in Givat Hamatos due to pressure from EU states, which deem such moves detrimental to the possibility of a two-state solution.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the Mitzpe Yericho Yeshiva on December 19, 2019. (Shlomo Dwek/Mitzpe Yericho Yeshiva)

Looking to shore up support ahead of the December 26 Likud leadership vote, Netanyahu on Thursday visited the Mitzpe Yericho settlement, promising to continue construction in the West Bank.

“Look at the ancient landscape of the Land of Israel, the land of Bible, the land of our fathers,” Netanyahu said during a speech at a yeshiva in the settlement. “We returned here [and] won’t leave from here.”

He also repeated pre-election pledges to annex the Jordan Valley and apply Israeli sovereignty to West Bank settlements if he heads the next government.

The prime minister has held a series of events in recent days with supporters as he campaigns to defeat Sa’ar, whose candidacy marks the first serious challenge to Netanyahu’s 15-year rule of Likud.

The leadership race comes after Netanyahu failed in consecutive attempts to form a government and was charged in a series of corruption cases, denting his reputation as “the magician” of Israeli politics.

Sa’ar has largely refrained from criticizing Netanyahu but argued that he would succeed where the premier has failed in assembling a coalition and boost the overall strength of right-wing and religious parties at the ballot box.

His candidacy has been criticized by Netanyahu allies as disloyal and destabilizing to the party at a time when unity is required after two inconclusive elections and the announcement of the charges against the prime minister.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then education minister Gideon Sa’ar (L) attend an award ceremony hosted by the Trump Foundation, at Netanyahu’s office in Jerusalem, on December 25, 2012. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The charges against Netanyahu, who denies wrongdoing, were a major bone of contention in unity talks between Likud and the rival Blue and White party following elections in September, which left both of the parties short of a majority together with their respective allies.

Recent television polls have suggested that though Likud itself would do worse in the next elections with Sa’ar at the helm instead of Netanyahu, the right-wing bloc the party leads would fare better overall.

The Knesset dissolved itself last Wednesday night, triggering national elections for the third time in under a year. The Knesset set the date of the elections for March 2.

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