Potential rival issues no direct challenge to Netanyahu, says he wants to strengthen party
Former Likud minister Gideon Sa’ar, widely seen as a major potential challenger to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from within the ranks of the party, announced his political comeback at the party’s headquarters in the northern city of Acre on Monday.
Sa’ar resigned from the Knesset in October 2014, saying he wanted to spend more time with his family, and his comeback has been the topic of speculation ever since.
Speaking to Likud members and activists at a pre-Passover toast in the Likud Party’s Acre branch, with pictures of former prime minister Menachem Begin and Zionist pioneer Theodor Herzl on the wall behind him, Sa’ar said, “I came here this evening to say to you: The time out is over.”
“I am returning to public and political life, for the sake of the Likud, for the sake of the people of Israel and for the sake of the state. My goal is to strengthen the Likud in the face of its challenges and to ensure that the Likud is the party of the future,” he said.
The announcement came as Netanyahu has been beset by political troubles from within his party and elsewhere, days after he threatened to call new elections over the objection of Likud colleagues, and with two police investigations calling his political future into question.
New elections are not scheduled until November 2019, with the Likud primaries set for half a year earlier. But recent tension within the coalition has prompted rumors that elections, and primaries, will be held earlier than planned.
Sa’ar, a popular former education and interior minister with a strong following in Likud, said the upcoming Passover festival, also known as “the festival of freedom,” was a time for introspection about the future of the Likud party and the country.
“We must ask ourselves: Who are we? As a country, as a people, as the Likud,” he said. “We can sense a danger of a return to the same old demand of Israel to withdraw to the ’67 borders, something that we believe, and have always believed, would be a great danger to Israel and a danger to its security. In the face of this challenge, we must strengthen the country and strengthen the Likud as the central national political party in Israel.”
“Two and a half years ago, I decided to take time off from political life after nearly 20 consecutive years of public service. I wanted to be with the family, and I wanted to deal with other challenges, but all good things come to an end.”
The coalition crisis between Netanyahu with Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon over the new public broadcaster — known as “Kan” — was resolved late last week with a deal that would see the news division separated from the corporation, its workers laid off, and most of the openings filled with former Israel Broadcasting Authority employees.
Among those expected to be fired as part of the deal is Geula Even, Sa’ar’s wife, who signed on as an anchor.
Sa’ar’s 2014 resignation was accompanied by reports of frayed ties with Netanyahu, but he had only praise for the prime minister Monday on his handling of the Obama administration during nearly a decade of often turbulent ties with Washington.
“We went through eight not-so-simple years with a [US] government that didn’t see things eye-to-eye the way we saw them. I want to commend Prime Minister Netanyahu who stood up under the pressure during that period in an aggressive manner and protect out interests during those years.”
Sa’ar served as education minister from 2009 to 2013, and in the previous government was interior minister until he resigned.
In February, Sa’ar confirmed he would return to the Likud, but would not commit to a time frame.
Although absent from political life for over two years, Israeli opinion polls frequently include Sa’ar in their surveys on the candidates best suited for the premiership. In a January poll by Channel 2, which evaluated the most likely successor to Netanyahu should he resign over corruption allegations, Sa’ar tied with Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett at 10 percent, trailing behind Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid who received the most support with 17%.
Sa’ar is regarded as more hawkish than Netanyahu and is considered to be emblematic of the party’s younger conservative bloc.