Tel Aviv — “We must speak the truth. And the sad truth is that the prime minister, who enjoys so much appreciation among all of us, is blocked” from forming a government.
That was the message of former Interior Minister Gideon Saar to the Likud faithful as he kicked off a 10-day primary election campaign aimed at convincing the party to dump Benjamin Netanyahu as its candidate for prime minister for Israel’s third general election in less than a year.
Saar’s primary candidacy marks the most serious internal party challenge to Netanyahu in 14 years. It reflects frustration with the prime minister after he failed twice to form a government in two previous rounds of voting. The primary contest, scheduled for Dec. 26 among 120,000 party members, also highlights Netanyahu’s weakened standing after Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit indicted him last month on multiple corruption charges, including bribery.
Speaking to hundreds of supporters at a catering hall in the party stronghold of Or Yehuda, 53-year-old Saar argued that, after Netanyahu failed twice before to put together a government, Israel’s right-wing would fare no differently this time around and would likely find itself in the opposition.
“He brought us to power four times. But the writing is on the wall,” Saar said in front of a backdrop with his campaign slogan, “Only Saar Can.” “There won’t be a fifth time. There is a huge majority for [Netanyahu’s] path, but the majority is eroding. … We see it poll after poll, and we hear it on the street.”
Amid chants of “Hoo-hah, who is that? The next prime minister,” Saar dubbed himself the candidate of change and a new hope for the party — and the best way to ensure the defeat of the centrist Blue and White party in the upcoming election.
“If we don’t change, we will risk ending up with a leftist government which will endanger everything that is dear to us,” Saar said.
Amid Netanyahu’s legal battles and struggles to form a coalition, Saar has long been seen as the likely successor.
Observers describe Saar as an astute politician who staked out a hardline position on national security: he opposed Israel’s pullout from the Gaza Strip in 2005. Saar criticized Netanyahu for openly endorsing a Palestinian state when he returned to power in 2009.
Though Saar lives in central Tel Aviv and comes from a secular background, he has cultivated ties with leading religious figures and started observing the Sabbath. At the same time, he has good relations with left-wing politicians despite his reputation as a nationalist hardliner.
Most critically, he has studiously avoided criticizing Netanyahu over the corruption indictment, recognizing that the overwhelming majority of Likud voters sympathize with the prime minister on those issues.
Even though Netanyahu remains the heavy favorite to win the race, Saar began the week with some momentum: a handful of Knesset members and Likud mayors endorsed his candidacy. And Likud Central Committee Chairman Haim Katz attended the Saar campaign kickoff event.
A poll by Israel’s public television news, Kan, suggests a mixed bag of outcomes regarding which candidate would fare better in the general elections. Likud might lose fewer seats to Blue and White under Netanyahu, but a right wing bloc would gain more seats than it would under Netanyahu — but still fall short of a 61-seat majority.
Even if Saar fails against Netanyahu, the primary would position him at the head of a handful of Likud would-be successors to Netanyahu, especially if he can get more than a third of the party’s votes.
“He’s a very shrewd politician. Unlike many others, he’s very consistent,” said Aviv Bushinsky, a former spokesman for Netanyahu.
“You won’t find anything that he’s done in the past that contradicts his positions in the present. Some say he’s a hardline right winger, which is true. But I don’t see him as someone in politics who is there to execute his ideology exclusively. His ideology is not a mission from God.”
No current Likud ministers have thrown their support behind Saar so far. For most of Likud’s four-plus decades, the party has avoided the internecine leadership battles that consumed the rival Labor Party. Other than Netanyahu, the party has only had three other leaders: Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir and Ariel Sharon.
In an interview with Israeli public radio, Absorption Minister Yoav Galant of Likud focused on Saar’s relatively thin resume on national security.
“There are 150,000 missiles aimed at us from Iran, Lebanon, Syria and Gaza,” said Galant. “I ask myself, who will deal with this challenge better? Benjamin Netanyahu, with his record, and what he’s done his whole life, or Gideon Saar? That’s my consideration.”
‘A Real Mutiny’
Saar’s first prominent political role was serving as cabinet secretary during Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister. He served in the same role under Ariel Sharon. When Netanyahu returned to power in 2009, he appointed Saar education minister. In party elections for the Likud candidate slate (below the party chairman), he has consistently finished in the top tier — and even came in first.
However, in a sign of the tension between him and Netanyahu, Saar retired from politics in 2014 when he was education minister. After Saar returned to active political life in 2017, Netanyahu accused the former interior minister of conspiring to overthrow him.
Saar is up against a charisma gap and will be hard-pressed to compete with Netanyahu’s international gravitas, an attribute that stirs pride among many rank-and-file Likudniks, said Mitchell Barak, an Israeli-American public opinion expert and a former adviser to Netanyahu.
“[Saar] is mounting an excellent campaign,” he said. “He’s got four or five members of Knesset endorsing him. That’s a real mutiny. And it’s happening right before an election. It’s unprecedented and a real fight.”
Within the party and Israel, few can remember the last time that there was a battle for the Likud leadership. (It was in 2005, after Ariel Sharon bolted the party and formed Kadima with defectors.)
Saar’s argument that he has a better chance of forming the next government than Netanyahu seems to be resonating.
“Netanyahu had two chances to lead us to victory and that didn’t happen,” said Danny Gottlieb, a Likud member who plans to back Saar. “I don’t see a way out except to pick another person, who is also qualified and will appeal to a wider base of voters. And arouses a lot less antagonism.”
Stuart Schnee, a public relations consultant who backs Netanyahu, said he thinks the competition is healthy for Likud.
“The people who support Saar are not anti-Netanyahu; they are being realistic. They think it’s a time for renewal. There are a lot of people in Likud whose criticism of him is, ‘Gee where is our young leadership? You’re not going to be there forever,’” said Schnee.
“I can hear the Saar argument, but I always come back to the Iran thing: Bibi has consistently been correct. That kind of stuff makes me nervous. I’m not convinced that changing horses right now is helpful.”