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Gideon Sa'ar seen at a Likud event in Hod Hasharon, November 25, 2019. Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)
Yossi Zeliger/Flash90: Gideon Sa'ar seen at a Likud event in Hod Hasharon, November 25, 2019
Interview'We believe truth has power. We'll see how much on March 23'

‘Netanyahu plays a dirty game,’ says challenger Sa’ar, ‘but he doesn’t scare me’

PM’s actions are ‘a danger to the people,’ his attacks on law enforcement are unconscionable, and much of the media’s in his pocket. So says the ex-colleague determined to oust him

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Main image by Yossi Zeliger/Flash90: Gideon Sa'ar seen at a Likud event in Hod Hasharon, November 25, 2019

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “systematically” besmirches anybody who dares to challenge him, whether within the governing Likud party or outside it, Gideon Sa’ar, his main rival in the March elections, has charged.

In an extensive interview with The Times of Israel, Sa’ar said Netanyahu and his supporters have attempted to harm him and his family, and to spread false, toxic rumors about them.

This is part of a systematic methodology that the prime minister has honed over the years, Sa’ar said, and some would-be rivals of Netanyahu are scared by it.

The former cabinet secretary and Likud high-flier — who was No.2 behind Netanyahu on the 2009 Knesset slate, and served as education and interior minister before unsuccessfully challenging Netanyahu for the Likud leadership in 2019 — said he would not be deterred, however. “I’m strong enough. It doesn’t get to me at all. I regard replacing Netanyahu today as a national priority. And attacks of this kind don’t affect me.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Education Minister Gideon Saar, attend the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Sunday, Oct. 18, 2009. (AP Photo/David Silverman, Pool)

Sa’ar, who in early December quit Likud, resigned his Knesset seat and established the New Hope party to take on Netanyahu in the elections, also castigated mainstream Hebrew media for allowing itself to be intimidated and manipulated by Netanyahu. The prime minister, he said, has managed to attain a “critical mass” of support and influence over the media unprecedented in the history of Israel.

“There are media outlets that are working for him 100% and besmirching anybody who opposes him,” Sa’ar said. “And he has his representatives [working] in every studio and in every mainstream media outlet… Simultaneously, he complains about the media, attacks it, delegitimizes it and places it permanently on the defensive, compelling it to prove that it’s treating him fairly. It’s quite astounding what’s happened here.”

Sa’ar argued that he is the only opponent of Netanyahu who is both capable of replacing him and committed to doing so — whereas, he said, another right-wing party leader and bitter critic of the prime minister, Yamina’s Naftali Bennett, lambasts Netanyahu but, incomprehensibly, still talks about partnering with him.

And he insisted that ousting Netanyahu, who has held power for a total of 15 years, including the past 12, is vital. Asked why he was so adamant that Netanyahu must go, Sa’ar replied: “Because Netanyahu places his personal well-being over the good of the country. A man in the midst of a financial crisis of this scale who is coldly willing to deprive the state of a budget because it serves his personal interests, and to intentionally take Israel to a fourth election within two years, a man like that, in my opinion, is a danger to the people. It’s dangerous that he continue in his job.”

Gideon Sa’ar gives a press conference as he meets with several Israeli hospital directors at their protest tent outside the Finance Ministry in Jerusalem demanding equal budgeting, on January 19, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Sa’ar, whose New Hope party is polling at 14-15 seats compared to Likud’s 29-32, was earnest and unhurried in the interview, conducted on Wednesday at his home in Tel Aviv. He spoke about the need for a certain humility in battling COVID, rather than the prime minister’s intermittent declarations that Israel is close to beating the pandemic, and charged that the failure to ensure equal lockdown law enforcement in ultra-Orthodox areas was a function of Netanyahu’s reliance on the political support of the ultra-Orthodox parties. This was “ironic,” he said, given that Netanyahu often complains about ostensible unequal law enforcement in the matter of his own legal difficulties.

He branded Netanyahu’s assaults on the various institutions of Israeli law enforcement “very dangerous.” Specifying the reforms he would implement to enshrine the balance of authority between the judiciary and the legislature, he said the difference between him and Netanyahu was that he wants to fix the system, whereas Netanyahu wants to destroy it.

He also set out his positions on the Palestinians — against statehood, in favor of autonomy — and on working with the Biden administration toward the shared goal of preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

Gideon Sa’ar speaks at his New Hope party headquarters in Tel Aviv, Jan. 14, 2021. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

Cerebral and polished when discussing diplomacy, Sa’ar, 54, was at once sorrowful and determined when talking about the imperative to get rid of the prime minister he once admired. “It’s true that in the past I thought Netanyahu was good for the country and I supported him,” he said at one point. “And if Netanyahu today was like Netanyahu ten years ago, or eight years ago, it’s likely that I’d still support him. But today he acts, no holds barred, in a manner that hurts the interests of the state.”

That is a summation eerily similar to one offered by Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, in an interview with ToI in 2018, shortly before Israel was plunged into this debilitating and indecisive series of elections. Like Lapid, Sa’ar speaks with the disillusion of someone who worked closely with Netanyahu, except that in Sa’ar’s case, the partnership lasted far longer, and was underpinned by a shared ideology. Sa’ar is an unwavering man of the right who has concluded that Likud’s ideological cause, and Israel’s well-being, are being undermined by the country’s own most articulate and most politically successful leader.

The following is an edited transcript of our interview, which was conducted in Hebrew.

The Times of Israel: Let’s start with the pandemic, and Israel’s handling of it. Do you see an end in sight?

Gideon Sa’ar: First of all, we’re optimists who believe that in the end everything will be fine. But we’re tracking the development of COVID and its various mutations, and we can’t rule out different possibilities, some of them disturbing, such as the development of a mutation that the vaccine is not necessarily effective against.

The pandemic requires us to show some humility, and certainly not to do what Netanyahu has been doing — the last time was a couple of weeks ago, for example, when he announced that we’re already past it, we’re done with it. We really can’t be sure about that. We need to continue to be very careful, to take care of our families and ourselves, to be disciplined. And this has to be managed competently and logically. You don’t always see the logic in how this is being managed.

Where is Netanyahu failing when it comes to the ultra-Orthodox community?

In this, but not only in this, you don’t see a determination to enforce the law in an equal manner, on all citizens. That’s ironic, coming from someone who complains a lot about ostensible unequal enforcement of the law.

Don’t tell me that the state doesn’t have the tools to enforce the law

It’s unacceptable that if all educational facilities are ordered closed — my little children, who are aged four and seven, are also at home — there are some educational facilities, approved and funded by the state, that are making their own laws.

And don’t tell me that the state doesn’t have the tools to enforce the law. When I was minister of education in 2010, and received reports about schools in two ultra-Orthodox educational networks that weren’t teaching the core curriculum as required by law, I cut something like NIS 20-30 million from their budgets. Some of the institutions started teaching English as a result, by the way. This was mainly in the Sephardi system.

The ultra-Orthodox parties were in the coalition, their politicians attacked me. That hadn’t been done by ministers of education before me, and I think it wasn’t done after me. But when you’re in a job with national responsibility you have a duty to follow proper principles. And the principle of equality before the law is central in any normal country.

Likewise, we’ve witnessed a disinclination to uphold the law in the Arab sector for years. Crime has thrived. Illegal weapons are traded and used.

These are the kinds of challenges that can’t be ducked if the country is to truly be sovereign — to uphold law and order in all its territories, in all sectors.

A bus set alight by an ultra-Orthodox mob protesting COVID lockdown regulations in the city of Bnei Brak, January 24, 2021. (Israel Police)

When you enforce the law against extreme elements and criminal elements, you also protect [the rest of society]. I’m thinking of extreme elements like those who rioted in Bnei Brak. I’m certain that most Bnei Brak didn’t like to see that [violence]. So when you prevent it, you protect the residents of Bnei Brak. And if you tackle crime in the Arab sector, you protect the Arab citizens of Israel. You’re acting in their interests, not against them.

What’s Netanyahu’s interest in failing to tackle crime in the Arab sector?

Not everything is to serve an “interest.” Some things are just negligence, a lack of interest. You see a record-high murder rate in the Arab sector. You hear the pleas for help from law enforcement growing louder every day — in the Galilee, in the Negev, in Lod, in the center of the country. And you can see nobody’s even trying to take meaningful action.

I proposed a law in this Knesset setting a minimum sentence for holding and trading illegal weapons; it was part of the plan we presented to fight crime in the Arab sector. Things can be done. Some of them will require confrontation. But unfortunately, fundamental issues in this country, fundamental domestic issues, are simply swept under the rug. They weren’t dealt with. And they grew into very significant problems.

Do you consider Netanyahu to be a threat to Israeli democracy, including because of his attacks on the institutions of law enforcement? You were asked a question about this on TV after the Trump-incited assault on the US Capitol, and you didn’t really answer. Is it too much to compare him to Trump in these matters?

Look, there are two dimensions here. There’s the delegitimization of the democratic process and of the results of that process. A year ago, we heard all kinds of attacks on the Central Elections Committee, and I hope we won’t get those again. If it happens again, we will firmly oppose any and every such attempt, because whoever delegitimizes the democratic process as it unfolds is preparing the ground for action following certain results. We’ll be on the alert for that.

And then there are the [attacks on the] institutions that enforce the law. The approach that Netanyahu and his people have followed, in recent years and especially in the past year, is a very dangerous one. There’s plenty to fix in the judicial system. We’ve set out what we believe needs to be fixed. But there’s a difference between fixing and destroying.

The show that Netanyahu put on, backed by a considerable proportion of Likud’s ministers [at Jerusalem District Court last year] on the first day of his trial, with the kinds of complaints that were aired, as though he had been indicted as part of some political conspiracy by the law enforcement agencies, that’s a very dangerous thing. There’s a big difference between saying, they were wrong about A, B, C, and I’m going to prove it in court, and casting doubt on the integrity of their work.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, surrounded by Likud lawmakers, gives a televised statement before the start of his corruption trial at the Jerusalem District Court on May 24, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Two days after the attorney general announced [the indictment], I declared that I don’t accept the description of his decision as a coup, and that this kind of rhetoric is very dangerous.

Netanyahu did three things that are the antithesis of what New Hope stands for, and I stressed this when I announced the formation of the party six or seven weeks ago. First, he has caused political instability: there have been four election campaigns within two years, and we’re in this loop that undermines social and financial stability as well. Second, there’s the damage he’s done to unity, to the texture of Israeli society; society has been weakened, divided. And third, there’s the undermining of what you might best define as statesmanship. There’s no institution, from the police to the president, that hasn’t been directly targeted by Netanyahu and his people.

Our society is being torn apart from within

[Political stability, unity, and respect for the institutions of state] are very basic things that must be safeguarded, They’re our values and they’re also a constituent of our national strength. At present, our society is being torn apart from within, Israel is being weakened, and that weakens our capacity to deal with external threats.

You didn’t demand that he resign when he was indicted, right?

I said, during the Likud primaries — this was when the decision to indict, contingent on a hearing, had been announced — I said that in his place I would resign, and allow the party and the country to choose someone else. I said that in December 2019.

I also acknowledged that the law allows him to continue to serve [as prime minister]. The Supreme Court did well in not ruling against this.

My issue is that Netanyahu hasn’t said, okay, the law permits me to stay on [as prime minister], and now I’ll prove my innocence in court. Instead, he delegitimizes. Look at the attacks on the attorney general. Again, I think we need some major reforms in the judicial system. But there’s a difference between [careful reforms of the system] and personal attacks that ascribe impure motives to the attorney general and to the entire law enforcement apparatus, and that have created a deeply troubling reality in which these officials now have to walk around with their own security guards. This is profoundly disturbing — unprecedented, I believe.

Since Netanyahu runs the country according to his own personal interests, and part of his interests relate to this issue of [his legal battles] and not the good of the country, he cannot continue to run the country.

Again, legally, he is permitted to continue. But the reality in which Netanyahu, the prime minister, cold-heartedly prevents the approval of the state budget, in the midst of the worst financial crisis the state has ever known — that’s just unthinkable. It’s a crystal clear instance of him placing his personal interest over the good of the country.

MK Gideon Sa’ar announces he is leaving Likud to form his own party, in a televised statement on December 8, 2020. (Screen capture: Facebook)

And that’s why, as I explained seven weeks ago, I could not be part of the Likud any longer, or continue to support the government under him. And I’ll remind you that I resigned from the Knesset before the elections were called, when it wasn’t yet clear that that would happen.

Won’t you also endanger Israeli democracy — both by weakening the Supreme Court and also as a result of your planned policies in the West Bank? Could you elaborate on your positions in both those areas?

My positions are clear and consistent.

I believe the judicial system requires major reforms. An example: We have to split the role of the attorney general. It simply doesn’t make sense that the same person who advises the prime minister and the ministers in the morning on how to advance their policies, is also the one who has to decide in the evening whether to investigate them or indict them. It puts him in a situation of inherent conflict of interest; it makes his job unworkable. Those [latter] responsibilities should be transferred to the state attorney. We need a state attorney, and a government adviser. That strengthens democracy; it doesn’t endanger it.

Regarding the Supreme Court, the process for selection of judges…?

Israel has existed for over 72 years, and has never constitutionally enshrined the powers of the judicial system and the legislature, crucially as regards judicial oversight of the Knesset. I support a long-discussed, wide-ranging Basic Law that will define the separation of authority between the legislature and the judiciary. It will define the specific authority of the High Court of Justice when it comes to disqualifying unconstitutional legislation and the terms of judicial oversight. There is no western democracy without some judicial oversight. But in Israel, the criticism is that the High Court unilaterally asserted that right.

No democrat can live with the idea that the legislature can pass any laws, even those that gravely harm citizens’ rights, without being subject to a certain judicial oversight. So that needs to be set down, in a balanced fashion.

[But] as things stand, any judge in any court in the land can determine that a Knesset law is unconstitutional; that makes no sense… You’d need to have a provision for a High Court of Justice supermajority to declare a law unconstitutional…

On the other hand, there are some cases in which the Knesset needs to have the last word, but there too, there would need to be a supermajority. And this is not some revolutionary new idea; it exists in Canada…

Illustrative — Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut (C) arrives for a discussion on a petition against the coronavirus restrictions on demonstrations in Jerusalem, on October 13, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The specifics need to be discussed, but I want to create a balanced structure where no one is going to say that the judiciary is not empowered to overrule an unconstitutional piece of legislation, and no one rules out legislation that bypasses the High Court of Justice… It’s tremendously important, once and for all, to enshrine this, by agreement — to enshrine the rules of our democracy.

We’ll still argue about court rulings; the whole world argues about rulings; but at least there’ll be agreement on the rules of the game. In a society as heterogeneous and divided as ours, leaving the situation as it is will continue to erode the public’s faith both in the judiciary and in the legislature, and that deeply worries me.

I’d like to do this with the widest possible consensus. Both sides have their anxieties — about too much power being given to the courts, about the Knesset having the last word under certain circumstances. But nobody opposes the model in principle… It’s important that we get this done, for the benefit of generations to come and for the future of the state.

You backed the nationality law?

I wasn’t in the Knesset at the time. It was during my four-and-a-half-year time out. But I would definitely have voted for it.

I have no problem with the nationality law, as it stands. It does what’s already been done in a lot of other western democracies: it sets out the characteristics of the state’s identity. This is part of the constitution in a lot of countries. Some countries even specify an official religion in their constitution. That’s not unreasonable.

I don’t know any serious person today who wants [Israel] to reassert sovereignty in Gaza, or Tulkarm or Ramallah

There’s nothing in there that harms human rights. Regarding the issue of the equality of all citizens, the High Court of Justice, in numerous verdicts, already interpreted the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty as covering the principle of equality. I’m certainly prepared for the principle of equality to be anchored in Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty, with the stipulations that this relates to the equal rights of the individual rather than equality in collective rights… I have no issue with the concept of equality, but I don’t support an interpretation that there is an equality of collective rights, which is a whole other matter…

That brings us to the territories, and your intended approach…

In the 90s, with the Oslo Accords, and a decade later, with the disengagement from Gaza, a de facto separation was carried out — by which the overwhelming majority of the Palestinian population in Judea and Samaria and in the Gaza Strip came under Palestinian rule. Ever since, it is under the governance of Hamas in Gaza, and the Palestinian Authority in Judea and Samaria. I don’t know any serious person today who wants [Israel] to reassert sovereignty in Gaza, or Tulkarm or Ramallah.

I think the national interest for Israel is in the direction of autonomy [for the Palestinians], with regional arrangements, and not an independent Palestinian state, which is both impossible and dangerous, and not a single, binational state either.

When they say it’s either a Palestinian state or a binational state, that’s like saying, Choose, how do you want to die or to take your own life — by gunshot or asphyxiation. The truth is that I want to live

When I’m told it has to be one or the other [– a Palestinian state alongside Israel or a single bi-national state–], I say, wait a minute. That’s what you told me before we withdrew from the Gaza Strip, and before we left the Palestinian population centers, so what did we do that for? Do you want to use these slogans to uproot 100,000 or 150,000 Jews from their homes? That, I’m opposed to.

When they say it’s either a Palestinian state or a binational state, that’s like saying, Choose, how do you want to die or to take your own life — by gunshot or asphyxiation. The truth is that I want to live, I don’t want to kill myself.

I don’t accept that this is a binary matter. I think there are other options. I want the Palestinians to govern themselves, with maximal ability to run their own lives and minimal ability to harm my security.

The idea of a “two-state solution” began with the Peel Commission in 1937, the UN partition plan of 1947, and continued through to the offers by [prime ministers] Barak and Olmert in recent years, and it always failed. I don’t see an option for a Palestinian state that is viable — for a lot of reasons, including financial — and that is not essentially the continuation of the struggle against the State of Israel from an upgraded position, but without a real capacity to maintain this teeny state.

I think that, as Giora Eiland, the former national security adviser, wrote in his book, Israel was wrong in taking upon itself sole responsibility for solving what’s called the Palestinian Problem. It was King Hussein who in 1988 rescinded the [Jordanian] citizenship rights of the Palestinian citizens of Judea and Samaria — against international law. That isn’t discussed; even we don’t discuss it.

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)

There will have to be regional arrangements in the future. In some fields, these can be trilateral. For example, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority can cooperate on issues relating to the environment, economics, tourism, plenty of things. These bilateral and trilateral arrangements could give the Palestinian Authority — as an autonomous authority, but not a sovereign state, because that’s simply impossible and unreasonable for many reasons — the capacity to better serve the Palestinian residents of Judea and Samaria.

We need to start thinking about other options as well. And you’ll ask me, but are these options acceptable to our neighbors? And I’ll tell you, no, but we haven’t reached agreement with them on anything else yet either.

The half a million Israeli citizens in our settlements are entitled to live under Israeli law

So, my starting point is first, let’s try to find a model that meets the national interest of the State of Israel as we see it, and then start discussing it. Including, by the way, discussing it discreetly with the Jordanians, with the Egyptians. There won’t be a sustainable model in this region without a very serious envelope of support. It may take more time, but that’s no reason to take irresponsible moves that could worsen our situation.

And in the meanwhile, you would extend Israeli law, sovereignty, over the settlements?

I didn’t hide my support for that as a future goal. The half a million Israeli citizens in our settlements are entitled to live under Israeli law. Not only are they entitled to do so, but the absence of Israeli law there creates considerable problems — I’ve encountered those as minister of education, as interior minister. It is important to do this in the future.

At the same time, I am of course aware that in the framework of the agreements with the Gulf states, Netanyahu committed to the Trump administration to suspend the issue of applying sovereignty for several years — at least three years as far as I know. As prime minister, I would certainly be obligated to a commitment given by an Israeli prime minister to the previous administration. So, this matter [of annexation] won’t be relevant for the next few years. And there will be other settlement-related interests to take care of.

Would you make the same choice? To choose normalization agreements at the price of taking annexation off the table?

What’s happened has happened. I could suggest all kinds of theoretical things that could have been done, something different, that might have included a component [of extended sovereignty] as well.

There may be opportunities in the future, too.

And that’s why I’m saying, clearly: One, is applying Israeli law to our settlements a goal? Yes. Two, am I obligated by the prime minister’s commitment to the previous administration? Yes. Three, do I want the peace process with additional Arab countries to continue? The answer is also yes.

I can manage ties with the administration headed by President Biden effectively — more effectively than Mr. Netanyahu

In diplomacy, you navigate between different goals. You have your world view, and there’s also the need for pragmatism when decisions are being taken. That’s where I stand right now.

I assume that same attitude applies to dealings with the new Biden administration — there’ll be disagreements, and a need to find the golden path? On Iran, for example.

Overall, I can manage ties with the administration headed by President Biden effectively — more effectively than Mr. Netanyahu. I can stand up for our national interests, as I see them, but without the past missteps with members of the administration.

Regarding Iran specifically, we agree on the desired end result. Both Israel and the US agree that Iran must not attain nuclear weapons. There’s also a regional consensus on this today.

[Antony] Blinken, in his confirmation hearing, said that the US will consult with its allies in the region. In my opinion, unilaterally removing the sanctions is the wrong thing to do, and returning to the same agreement that president Obama signed, the JCPOA, is also the wrong thing to do.

But having said that, our national interests can be served by a real, effective dialogue with the Biden administration, and that’s what I intend to do. Even Prime Minister Netanyahu didn’t rule out different options when he said [of the Iran deal], Fix it or nix it. That means that, at least theoretically, there was some type of agreement that he could have lived with.

We’ll need to stand up for our national interests. And it’s best that we reach a place of understanding and influence with the Americans. There may be different situations [in which we cannot agree]. We’ll deal with that. We’re a sovereign state. We need to take care of our own interests in any case.

But it’s very worthwhile to try to convince them as well, because the fact is that in the years since the JCPOA [was finalized], we’ve seen Iran break it. We’ve seen them now breach the clause on enrichment, going to 20% percent; we see them threatening to throw out the [IAEA] inspectors and turning the issue of inspections into a joke. We’ve seen what’s happened with their missile program. A certain amount of experience [of Iran’s unreliability and duplicity] has been accumulated, which we can highlight, first of all, to our closest friends. The United States is our best friend, and we need to hold a dialogue with it.

A somewhat personal question. What’s it like, battling Netanyahu? How does he play? Is it dirty, painful, dangerous, or a clean political struggle?

It’s a dirty game. Netanyahu plays a dirty game.

And his whole apparatus, in the media and in social media, has been doing that against me for years. It’s not something new. Just look at the type of things that members of his family disseminate.

When I challenged him for the Likud leadership, his people inside Likud, simply because I demanded the right to challenge him, called me a traitor

Netanyahu systematically besmirches his political rivals, inside and out. I was targeted when I was in the Likud. It’s a systematic approach. When I challenged him for the Likud leadership, his people inside Likud, simply because I demanded the right to challenge him, called me a traitor.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Minister Ze’ev Elkin (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

He asked Ze’ev Elkin, who supported him in that leadership race, why Elkin wasn’t attending Likud gatherings? And Elkin said, I can’t come to the events when they call a member of our party a traitor. Netanyahu replied, but I didn’t say that. And Elkin said, Yes, but you hear it and you say nothing. [Elkin in late December resigned from Likud to join Sa’ar’s New Home party. Other recruits include former Likud MKs Yifat Shasha-Biton and Benny Begin, and former Derekh Eretz MKs Yoaz Hendel and Zvi Hauser — DH]

Even at the first event just days after the leadership election [in late December 2019], when I came with our people to a joint event, after Netanyahu had won, even there, they called me a traitor. At a convention where Netanyahu had an interest in presenting a show of unity — after all, 28% of Likud members had voted for me…

Netanyahu thought it was completely legitimate for him to challenge prime minister Sharon [for the Likud leadership], but when someone challenged him, that challenger is presented as the enemy of the state.

Likud MK Gideon Sa’ar arrives with his wife Geula Even-Sa’ar, a former TV news anchor, at a voting station to cast his vote in the Likud leadership race, in Tel Aviv, on December 26, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

I’m not even getting into what they do, the kind of poison they spread.

No, please do get into it. I don’t know it. You mentioned his sons. One son, or both?

I said members of his family. I’m not going to dignify them by mentioning their names. But it includes attacks on members of my family, harm to members of my family and their privacy, their private life, in a toxic way. Spreading rumors alleging that a political rival has committed criminal acts. This is systematic, systematic.

And this comes from whom? From his family? His supporters?

It comes from Balfour [Street, the prime minister’s official residence]. It comes from Balfour. And the supporters echo it. And sometimes Balfour echoes what the supporters say. This is all systematic. Systematic. This is how they operate against political rivals.

To deter? To besmirch?

Some people are afraid of it. I’m strong enough. It doesn’t get to me at all. I regard replacing Netanyahu today as a national priority. And attacks of this kind don’t affect me.

A priority because of the personality, the kind of person he is? Not the policies?

Because Netanyahu places his personal well-being over the good of the country. A man, in the midst of a financial crisis of this scale, who is coldly willing to deprive the state of a budget because it serves his personal interests, and to intentionally take Israel to a fourth election within two years, a man like that, in my opinion, is a danger to the people. It’s dangerous that he continue in his job.

There are media outlets that are working for him 100% and besmirching anybody who opposes him. And he has his representatives [working] in every studio and in every mainstream media outlet. There’s never been anything like it in the history of the state

It’s true that in the past I thought Netanyahu was good for the country and I supported him. And if Netanyahu today was like Netanyahu ten years ago, or eight years ago, it’s likely that I’d still support him.

Hebrew media, in this struggle, is acting appropriately, or is largely skewed in his favor, or what?

Netanyahu has managed to create a critical mass [of support] in Israeli media, that no previous prime minister ever had. There are media outlets that are working for him 100% and besmirching anybody who opposes him. And he has his representatives [working] in every studio and in every mainstream media outlet. There’s never been anything like it in the history of the state. He worked for years to achieve this. And simultaneously, he complains about the media, attacks it, delegitimizes it and places it permanently on the defensive, compelling it to prove that it’s treating him fairly. It’s quite astounding what’s happened here.

In this election campaign, too, by the way, if Netanyahu holds a news conference at 8 pm, they’ll broadcast it live [on the nightly news]. If I hold one, they won’t. When I announced I was leaving the Likud, they broadcast it, but not otherwise. The media has allowed a situation whereby it covers him as the statesman allegedly dealing with the major issues of the state; everybody else when they come to the studios is asked about narrow politics. This gives him the infrastructure on which to base his central claim: I’m the great statesman, and all the rest are mere politicians.

Menachem Begin talked often about the dangers of somebody being in power for too long. Netanyahu’s been prime minister for 15 years, 12 of them consecutive, and he’s managed to create a gargantuan mass [of support] in the mainstream media and in social media. It’s a machine, and it’s lethal

Netanyahu is truly an artist when it comes to media and marketing. He’s much weaker when it comes to implementation.

Doesn’t anyone have the authority, for instance, to intervene at Army Radio, where hours of broadcasts every weekday feature blatant pro-Netanyahu content?

Propaganda.

There’s no way to achieve substantive change for the better without changing the leadership. Menachem Begin talked often about the dangers of somebody being in power for too long. He’s been prime minister for 15 years, 12 of them consecutive, and he’s managed to create a gargantuan mass [of support] in the mainstream media and in social media. It’s a machine, and it’s lethal.

We’re facing off against it with much less power, but we believe that the truth has some kind of power as well. We’ll find out how much on March 23.

I interviewed Benny Gantz before a recent election, and asked him about the social media numbers — about how many followers Netanyahu has on Facebook, on Twitter. It seemed that Gantz didn’t fully internalize that challenge.

I’m doing my best with the tools I have. I was not afraid to challenge him inside Likud, which was a harder struggle, and even more one-sided, in that he controlled all the party institutions and the election committee, and all the ministers supported him. And I’m certainly not afraid to challenge him today in front of the wider public.

If I hadn’t set up New Hope, these elections would be a foregone conclusion. Netanyahu would have been heading easily to a government with a 67- or 68-seat Knesset majority

I believe that most of the public in the state of Israel does not want Netanyahu staying on as prime minister after the elections. And some of those people did support Netanyahu in the past. Today they understand that this chapter has to end.

Starting our party, New Hope, opened up new possibilities. If I hadn’t set up New Hope, these elections would be a foregone conclusion. Netanyahu would have been heading easily to a government with a 67- or 68-seat Knesset majority. That’s why I believe me and our party have a historical role: to prevent the decline of the state of Israel into depths we should not reach.

I’m 100% committed to this goal of replacing the ruling party. I think we have a chance. A certainty? No, but if Netanyahu can’t muster a majority coalition, and according to the surveys so far he doesn’t have 61 [in the 120-member Knesset], I believe I will be able to establish a government. It will be complicated. It will require cooperation from diverse players, but it will be possible. First and foremost, we need to win maximal public support.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP)

Nobody else can do this. Lapid has tried to do it five times to date — sometimes on his own, sometimes with others — and didn’t manage. He comes from the left of center and he can’t win over a majority of Israelis.

Bennett doesn’t want to do it. Even today, with all the harsh criticism he levels at Netanyahu, he’s not willing to rule out [sitting in government with Netanyahu]. Quite the reverse. He says openly that they may sit together.

Naftali Bennett arrives for a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, November 18, 2018. (Abir Sultan/Pool via AP)

I don’t understand how you can say the things [that Bennett has said about Netanyahu] and not draw the necessary conclusion. It’s perfectly legitimate to go into the opposition. You don’t always have to be in the government.

I am the only one who is committed to the goal [of replacing Netanyahu], and think I can achieve it. I hope I do. I’m doing the utmost. I’m working very hard for this. And with me is a group of brave people, each of whom made a decision that was easier not to make.

Benjamin Netanyahu and Gideon Sa’ar at a Likud faction meeting in the Knesset, Nov. 21, 2005. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
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