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Sa’ar: If you want Netanyahu as prime minister, don’t vote for me

Former minister who quit Likud this week promises to head to opposition if he can’t defeat his former boss

Gideon Sa'ar at his office at the Knesset on November 27, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Gideon Sa'ar at his office at the Knesset on November 27, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Days after quitting the Likud to form a new political party that would challenge Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the country’s leadership, Gideon Sa’ar said Saturday that his departure marks a vote of no-confidence in Israel’s longest-serving premier. Sa’ar added that should Netanyahu win enough Knesset seats to form a coalition in the next elections, he would head to the opposition.

Speaking Saturday evening on Israel’s Channel 12 news, Sa’ar said he left the Likud “as an expression of no-confidence in Netanyahu and what he is doing to the country and to the party.”

Sa’ar said he intends to “win the election to bring about change [in leadership] and form the next coalition,” adding that he hadn’t come all this way just to help Netanyahu “extend his tenure.”

“I say this clearly: Whoever wants Netanyahu to continue to be prime minister should not vote for me. Whoever wants to replace the leadership in Israel — I ask for their vote. I am running for prime minister,” he said.

“If Netanyahu will be the next prime minister, I will sit in the opposition,” he added.

Long seen as Netanyahu’s chief rival in the Likud party, Sa’ar quit the Likud Tuesday night in a televised announcement that included a fiery critique of his now-former party and its leader. He resigned his Knesset seat the next day.

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, he said. Derech Eretz lawmakers Yoaz Hendel and Zvi Hauser later announced they would join Sa’ar.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) and then-interior minister Gideon Sa’ar (L) seen at the Knesset on July 9, 2013. (Flash 90)

On Saturday, Sa’ar kept up the criticism of the Likud, charging that a continued Netanyahu rule would be “damaging to the State of Israel.” The former minister also took aim at the “poisonous discourse” adopted by members of his former party. “I see the way we do not respect others and turn everyone with a different opinion into an enemy — this is dangerous,” he said.

He further charged that many Likud ministers feel the way he does and say so “behind closed doors.”

Sa’ar called Yamina head Naftali Bennett a “patriot” and a potential partner and said he would not rule out forming a coalition with any party, including the ultra-Orthodox parties.

In response to the interviews, the Likud said in a statement that the cat was out of the bag, so to speak, and that Sa’ar effectively “announced tonight that he would join a left-wing government in order to overthrow the Netanyahu-led Likud government.”

Israel is widely believed to be hurtling toward elections — the fourth in two years. If the budget for 2020 is not passed by December 23, the Knesset would automatically dissolve. And a Knesset committee on Wednesday advanced a bill to dissolve parliament and set a March 16, 2021 election date, but the bill must still clear three readings in the plenum, and Netanyahu and his Blue and White partner-rival Benny Gantz could yet agree on a compromise to stave off a return to the polls.

A day after Sa’ar announced his departure from Likud, polls on Israel’s three major news networks forecast his nascent New Hope party getting between 15 and 18 seats if the country goes to elections — shaking up the political landscape and introducing several potential paths to coalitions that do not include Netanyahu, while seriously narrowing the premier’s path to leading the next government.

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