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AnalysisA good day for the PM, as several rivals emerge, but meekly

With disarming return to politics, Sa’ar gives Netanyahu little cause to fret

Stumping for Likud more than himself, ex-minister praises PM upon political reentry; top generals also seem out of the running

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Israel's Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with Gideon Sa'ar at the party meeting in the Knesset in Jerusalem March 2, 2009. (Miriam Alster / FLASH90.)
Israel's Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with Gideon Sa'ar at the party meeting in the Knesset in Jerusalem March 2, 2009. (Miriam Alster / FLASH90.)

Gideon Sa’ar is back. The former Likud minister, Benjamin Netanyahu’s most realistic challenger for the party leadership, announced that he’ll be picking up his political career after a three-year hiatus.

Standing at a podium draped in an Israeli flag and flanked by photos of former prime minister Menachem Begin and Theodor Herzl, the former Likud No. 2 declared to a cheering crowd of activists his much-anticipated return.

But if Monday’s press conference is any indication, Sa’ar doesn’t look like he’ll be putting up much of a fight, if his goal is to wrest control of the governing party from the prime minister.

In his remarks, Sa’ar made no mention, even indirectly, of any ambition to seek the premiership. Not only did he refrain from criticizing his ostensible rival Netanyahu, he praised him for withstanding the pressure of the Obama administration. Nor did he even allude to the matter of the new public broadcaster, and a deal cut between Netanyahu and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon that will likely see Sa’ar’s wife, Geula Even, lose her position as anchor in the new corporation.

Indeed, throughout his speech at a Likud event in the northern city of Acre, Sa’ar — who during his hiatus from politics, taken officially in order to spend time with his family, continued to appear as a potential candidate in TV political polls — campaigned for the party more vigorously than for himself.

Former Likud minister Gideon Sa'ar speaks during a press conference announcing his return to politics, in Acre, on April 3, 2017 (Meir Vaaknin/Flash90)
Former Likud minister Gideon Sa’ar speaks during a press conference announcing his return to politics, in Acre, on April 3, 2017 (Meir Vaaknin/Flash90)

“My goal — and I’m sorry if this disappoints anyone here — is to strengthen the Likud ahead of the future challenges. My goal is to ensure that the Likud… will lead the country in the future, too,” Sa’ar said halfway through his speech, moments after announcing his return.

The timing of Sa’ar’s announcement was likely the result of his assessment of a restive coalition gearing up for elections, between Netanyahu and Kahlon’s fight over the broadcaster — apparently resolved last week — and the prime minister’s sparring with Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett on Sunday over settlements and peace talks. As it stands, elections are not scheduled until November 2019, with Likud primaries set for six months before Israelis head to the polls. Still, the various coalition crises have sent politicians into full-fledged election fever and a snap vote could be called with little warning.

In the sole point during his address at which he appeared to differentiate himself from the prime minister and lay the groundwork of a future campaign, Sa’ar hawkishly cautioned against a two-state solution. But that glimmer of a campaign tactic that, like Bennett, would squeeze Netanyahu from the right, was also wedged between praise of the premier and calls to support the Likud party.

The past eight years were “difficult,” as Israel and the US didn’t “always see eye-to-eye,” said Sa’ar.

“I want to praise Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who withstood the pressures during this period firmly, and protected our interests during these eight years. But the pressures, the challenges, the problems, are not behind us. We are following what is happening and we recognize the danger of returning to the same framework… to return to the ’67 lines in one way or another, something that we have always believed and still believe endangers Israel’s future, endangers Israel’s security,” he said.

At such a time, “we need to strengthen the Likud as the central political and national movement in the State of Israel,” he continued, again declining to mention what he foresees as his future role.

Gideon Sa'ar announcing his political comeback in Acre on April 3, 2017. (Courtesy)
Gideon Sa’ar announcing his political comeback in Acre on April 3, 2017. (Courtesy)

Apart from the candidates themselves, a number of other factors will likely shape the political landscape, including how quickly Israel goes to elections, and how Netanyahu’s corruption probes play out. Moreover, if Netanyahu resumes peace talks with the Palestinians, he may fare differently in a Likud primary race against Sa’ar. Another question mark is whether an embittered Kahlon, formerly a loyal coalition partner to Netanyahu, will seek new alliances as his party sinks in the polls.

Sa’ar, a former education and interior minister, also called for improved pension plans, hailed Israel’s economy, urged more Judaism in schools, and repeatedly appealed for a sense of unity.

“Together — we will do everything together, out of a sense of unity,” said Sa’ar, who reportedly left the Likud in 2014 with his relationship with Netanyahu soured over the latter’s attempt to block Reuven Rivlin from the presidency.

Whipping out a kippah to make a blessing on wine, Sa’ar paused. “And if I may,” he said and proceeded to recite the “Shehecheyanu,” a blessing celebrating special occasions. Activists from the crowd chimed in and cheered.

A good day for Netanyahu

Sa’ar’s meek introduction was not the only good news for Netanyahu on Monday.

Earlier in the day, in unveiling a social movement called Pnima (Inwards), former IDF chiefs of staff Gadi Eisenkot and Benny Gantz both denied they were planning a political run. If Sa’ar has been touted as the alternative to Netanyahu on the right, Gantz and Ashkenazi have been cast as possible saviors from the center-left, with the security cred to knock Likud out of power.

“Not everything has to be political,” Ashkenazi insisted, while in an apparent Freudian slip repeatedly referring to his movement as Kadima, the former centrist splinter party. “I don’t think politics is the only way to do things.”

Mayor of Acre Shimon Lankri, Former IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi (2L), Shlomo Dovrat, former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz (standing) and former education minister Shai Piron at a press conference for the new social movement "Pnima," in Lod, on April 3, 2017. (Tomer Neuberg/FLASH90)
Mayor of Acre Shimon Lankri, Former IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi (2L), Shlomo Dovrat, former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz (standing) and former education minister Shai Piron at a press conference for the new social movement “Pnima,” in Lod, on April 3, 2017. (Tomer Neuberg/FLASH90)

While the denials do not mean Gantz and Ashkenazi have completely ruled out a political career, it does indicate they have not, as yet, found a political home. Should snap elections occur, they would likely remain out of the loop

Gantz, who is barred from running until 2018, when his cooling-off period ends, similarly rejected the suggestion that he was gearing up for a new career.

“I think politics is important,” he said. “But we aren’t there, we are here.”

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