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Netanyahu’s rival accelerates campaign for party leadership

Gideon Saar wants to replace Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: He’s more hawkish than Netanyahu; he campaigns for a new status quo with the ultra-Orthodox; and he stresses the importance of engaging Israel’s Arab citizens in dialogue.
03 October 2019, ---, Jerusalem: Israeli Former Minister of the Interior Gideon Sa'ar attends the Likud party faction meeting, ahead of the swearing-in of the 22nd Israel's parliament (Knesset). Photo: Ilia Yefimovich/dpa (Photo by Ilia Yefimovich/picture alliance via Getty Images)

At some point, the indictment facing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will make it necessary to replace the head of the Likud party and the right-wing bloc. Once that happens, Knesset member and former Minister Gideon Saar will be the leading contender. After all, he was the first to issue a public challenge to Netanyahu’s leadership. According to an agreement between Netanyahu and Chairman of the Likud Central Committee Haim Katz, if the Knesset is, in fact, dissolved on Dec. 11 at midnight, the Likud can be expected to hold a leadership primary sometime in mid-January.

Netanyahu is Israel’s longest serving prime minister. Saar is a former minister of interior and education. The two men have very different styles. Unlike Netanyahu, Saar is popular among the leaders of Blue and White, including that party’s right-wing flank. Knesset member Zvi Hauser, who was Cabinet secretary when Saar was minister, is very friendly with him. The Blue and White party’s leaders have said on more than one occasion that if Netanyahu resigns, it would take them very little time to form a new government. It could be done “in an hour,” according to party leader Benny Gantz.

A poll conducted by Maariv Nov. 29 found that under Netanyahu, the Likud would win more seats (33) than it would under Saar (31). On the other hand, in a competition between the right- and left-wing blocs, the right-wing bloc under Saar would be the winner with 56 seats, two more than it would win under Netanyahu. Other polls show similar findings.

Saar enjoys quite a bit of support in the Likud. He ranked high (fourth place) in the Likud primaries before the April election, despite his bitter rivalry with Netanyahu. Then, after he challenged Netanyahu to hold a new primary for party leadership Nov. 23, a series of local Likud party council heads and mayors threw their support behind him. These included Meir Kadosh of Eilat, Carmel Shama HaCohen of Ramat Gan, Yitzhak Danino of Ofakim, David Azulay of Metulla and two prominent council heads from West Bank settlements, Hananel Durani of Kedumim and Yossi Dagan of the Samaria Regional Council. Dagan heads a powerful bloc in the Likud, which includes many settlers who registered for the party. He also has a direct line to the prime minister, so his support for Saar indicates that there is some movement in that direction. Saar’s camp claims that there are many others like these officials, who are waiting for the official party leadership primaries to announce their support for him publicly.

Saar is also considered much more acceptable than Netanyahu to Israel’s center-left parties. Nevertheless, in a conversation with Al-Monitor, he made it clear that he is no less hawkish than Netanyahu on diplomatic issues and may even be more hawkish than the prime minister. In practical terms, Saar voted against the disengagement from the Gaza Strip in 2005 and claims that there is no room in the country to create a Palestinian state. “I don’t believe in what’s called a ‘two-state solution,’” he said. “I call it a ‘two-state illusion.' It will not resolve the conflict between us and our neighbors. It will only distance us from peace, harm any chances for stability in the region and deliver a harsh blow to the security of Israel and its citizens.”

Saar said that the solution is to establish Palestinian autonomy in the Palestinian Authority (PA), with political ties to Jordan. This, Saar added, would give the autonomous areas economic and civil depth. “This would include territorial agreements between Israel, Jordan and the PA on economic issues, tourism, the environment, and more.”

Saar is also an enthusiastic supporter of imposing Israeli sovereignty on the settlements. As for the Gaza Strip, Saar has no doubt that Israel will eventually need to embark on a major ground operation to dismantle the military infrastructures set up by Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

When it comes to matters of religion and state, Saar proposes creating a new, long-term status quo, which would include concessions on the part of the ultra-Orthodox. “We need to establish a common basis, rooted in the understanding that this is a Jewish state,” he said. “On the other hand, everyone should be free to choose their way of life without any element of coercion. Even the ultra-Orthodox can see that ultimately, life tends to push the status quo in one direction — the secular direction — which is why it is in their interest to reach long-term agreements and prevent the wearing away of the status quo.”

His positions on human rights are liberal. He set a precedent as minister of interior in 2014, when he instructed the Registrar of Population to recognize same-sex partners as eligible to immigrate according to the Law of Return. In other words, the partners of LGBTQ Jews were given the right to immigrate to Israel and receive Israeli citizenship. He was also the first minister of education to provide funding for Israel Gay Youth, and to recognize volunteer programs for students in that organization in 2014.

As for relations with Arab society in Israel, Saar advocates dialogue, rather than boycotts. He represents the popular, liberal Likud, which maintains contact with all streams of society. Unlike Netanyahu, he never lashes out crudely or attacks certain parts of the population or his political rivals. “Today, a large part of Israel’s Arab population wants to integrate in more meaningful ways and play a greater role in Israeli society and politics,” Saar noted. “It is not only in their interest but also in the interest of the country as a whole. We can and must encourage greater investments in the Arab public.” He is also critical, if only indirectly, of Netanyahu’s remarks about the Arabs. “We need to engage Arab society in dialogue, and I have been doing that for many years. We can advance social and economic integration much better than we are now doing. It will even have positive implications for Arabs living in the Arab states.”

One senior Likud official, who said that he is hesitant to support Saar publicly, told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that despite Netanyahu’s achievements and the genuine feeling within the Likud that the indictment against the prime minister is tainted by political harassment, the current political situation makes it incumbent on him to step down, if only temporarily, and allow someone like Saar to replace him. That way, the country can form a broad government instead of holding a third round of elections.

The way things look now, Saar still is not strong enough politically to defeat Netanyahu, but he is nonetheless convinced that when the time comes, he will win. His ability to connect directly with Likud party members and voters positions him as a leading candidate. As far as the Likud base is concerned, support for Saar among political factors outside the Likud party is itself an advantage, since this positions him as someone who can lead a whole country and not just a party.

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