The Likud party on Tuesday assailed MK Gideon Sa’ar over his decision to leave the party and set up his own rival political movement, saying in a statement that the veteran member was doing so due to plummeting popularity rather than any ideological motive.
Individual Likud lawmakers also pummeled Sa’ar after he revealed his plan to set up his own party, New Hope, while opposition leader MK Yair Lapid praised him for the move.
Sa’ar, long seen as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s chief rival within Likud, announced his intention to leave the party at a press conference in which he railed against Netanyahu, saying Likud had become a “tool for the personal interests of the person in charge, including matters relating to his criminal trial,” and had fostered “a cult of personality” around Netanyahu.
Likud issued a statement saying Sa’ar had decided to leave because of his loss to Netanyahu in the Likud leadership race last December, and claiming recent internal polls had shown he’d do poorly in fresh primaries. It also noted his previous vows not to leave the party.
“Sa’ar decided to abandon the right, join Lapid and a long list of politicians who abandoned Likud and then completely crashed,” Likud said.
Knesset Speaker and senior Likud party member MK Yariv Levin, speaking to Channel 13 news just after the press conference, said Sa’ar had “made a huge mistake.”
“Sa’ar did something that he should not have done,” Levin said and accused the former minister of failing to accept the democratic outcome of the Likud party leadership contest. Sa’ar, he said, will come to regret the decision.
Coalition leader MK Miki Zohar also attacked Sa’ar, tweeting: “You don’t leave home, you don’t switch parties when it gets tough.” MK Nir Barkat tweeted: “It is unfortunate that during a national crisis there are those who again choose to flee the battlefield and divide instead of uniting.”
Transportation Minister Miri Regev recalled Sa’ar’s previous promises to always remain with Likud and tweeted that he had now joined the “‘Just not Bibi’ camp,” using Netanyahu’s nickname.
Regev also claimed that Sa’ar was not leaving for ideological reasons but because he was not selected to lead the party.
“This is not being faithful to one’s convictions, rather [being faithful] to ego battles and to not accepting the voters’ judgment,” she wrote.
By contrast, opposition leader Lapid said he welcomed Sa’ar’s “brave decision.”
“We have different views on many subjects but Israeli politics needs decent and caring people who don’t give in to power and corruption,” he tweeted.
Lapid attacked the Likud party for its immediate criticism of Sa’ar, saying the party should have had the decency to wish him well and at least wait until the next day before opening fire.
Sa’ar, who failed in a Likud leadership challenge against Netanyahu late last year, said the current coalition had wasted its wide parliamentary support and failed in its handling of the pandemic. Israelis had lost their faith in the political system, and were worried about their own future and that of their children.
“Likud has changed its character dramatically in recent years,” he said. “I can no longer support the Netanyahu-led government or be a member of a party led by him… Today Israel needs unity and stability — Netanyahu can offer neither.
“There’s a better Israel, and it’s waiting for us,” he said. But the party under Netanyahu could not take Israel to that improved future, he charged, since the party he always loved had abandoned its traditional statesmanship and the unity for which its name, “Likud,” previously stood.
Paraphrasing the party’s first prime minister Menachem Begin, Sa’ar cautioned against the moral dangers for the nation of overly protracted leadership. “Replacing Netanyahu is the order of the hour,” he declared.
He said that since he was elected for Likud, it was only right that he resign his Knesset seat, “and I will do this tomorrow.”
A Likud hawk, seen to stand to Netanyahu’s right on issues relating to settlements and the Palestinians, Sa’ar vowed to build a broad and pluralistic party, including Israel’s “finest forces in public life,” to work “solely for the interests of the state.” And he insisted that he was ready for the job of prime minister. “I know Israel’s security and social challenges,” he said. “I can unite Israel and shape it for the future.”
Israel is widely believed to be hurtling toward elections — the fourth in two years. The Knesset last Wednesday gave initial approval to a bill to dissolve the parliament amid a budget crisis and call a new vote. The legislation requires three more votes to be final.
Yet many political analysts agreed Tuesday night that the current Likud-Blue and White coalition might incline more toward a compromise in the light of the electoral threat posed by Sa’ar’s announcement. Sa’ar himself acknowledged in his statement that this might happen.
Sa’ar’s new party will aim to join forces with other existing political factions before the next election, sources close to him told The Times of Israel earlier on Tuesday.
“Everything is on the table,” a source said, stressing that Sa’ar sought to become “a serious political force” and realizes that he needs to create a broad right-wing coalition to do so.
Rightist Derech Eretz MKs Zvi Hauser and Yoaz Hendel, who broke off from the centrist Blue and White list when they joined the Netanyahu-led coalition in May, may join Sa’ar’s party, according to Hebrew media reports.
Likud MK Yifat Shasha-Biton, an outspoken critic of the government’s coronavirus policies, may also run on Sa’ar’s list, according to Channel 12.
Former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot has also not ruled out teaming up with Sa’ar, the network said.
Agencies contributed to this report.