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Gideon Sa’ar quits Likud, ‘a tool for Netanyahu’s interests,’ to lead new party

Likud MK Gideon Sa’ar, long seen as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s chief rival within Likud, on Tuesday announced he was quitting Likud and will form his own right-wing party and run for the premiership in the next election.

Sa’ar announced his intention to leave Likud at a press conference on Tuesday night. He said he would quit the ruling party and the Knesset on Wednesday.

In a fiery critique, Sa’ar, a former leading Likud minister, said his party had become a “tool for the personal interests of the person in charge, including matters relating to his criminal trial” and “a cult of personality” around Netanyahu.

“Likud has changed its character dramatically in recent years,” he said. “I can no longer support the Netanyahu-led government or be a member of a party led by him… Today Israel needs unity and stability-Netanyahu can offer neither.”

Since he was elected by the Likud, he said it was only right that he resign his Knesset seat, “and I will do this tomorrow.”

Sa’ar, who failed in a Likud leadership challenge against Netanyahu 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.

There’s a better Israel, and it’s waiting for us,” he said. But Likud under Netanyahu could not take Israel to that improved future, he charged, since the party he always loved had abandoned its traditional statesmanship and the unity for which it previously stood.

Paraphrasing Likud’s first prime minister Menachem Begin, Sa’ar cautioned against the moral dangers for the nation of overly protracted leadership. “Replacing Netanyahu is the order of the hour,” he declared.

A Likud hawk, seen to stand to Netanyahu’s right on issues relating to the settlements and the Palestinians, Sa’ar vowed to build a broad and pluralistic party, including Israel’s “the finest forces in public life,” to work “solely for the interests of the state.” And he insisted that he was ready for the job of prime minister. “I know Israel’s security and social challenges,” he said. “I can unite Israel and shape it for the future.”

He added that it was possible his move would actually put off the imminent potential dissolution of parliament, delaying the next elections. And many political analysts said Tuesday night that the current Likud-Blue and White coalition might incline more to a compromise in the light of Sa’ar’s announcement.

Sa’ar’s new party will aim to join forces with other existing political factions before the next election, sources close to Sa’ar told The Times of Israel earlier on Tuesday.

“Everything is on the table,” a source said, stressing that Sa’ar sought to become “a serious political force” and realizes that he needs to create a broad right-wing coalition to do so.

Rightist Derech Eretz MKs Zvi Hauser and Yoaz Hendel, who broke off from the centrist Blue and White list when they joined the Netanyahu-led coalition in May, may join Sa’ar’s party, according to Hebrew media reports.

Likud MK Yifat Shasha-Biton, an outspoken critic of the government’s coronavirus policies, may also run on Sa’ar’s list, according to Channel 12.

Former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot has also not ruled out teaming up with Sa’ar, the network said.

Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman, in a radio interview earlier on Tuesday, had said Sa’ar would split off and form his own party, along with Hendel and Hauser. The right-wing secularist leader made the comments on 103 FM, prior to reports coming out on Sa’ar’s intentions, and predicted that some Likud members could follow Sa’ar and leave Netanyahu’s party.

Israel is widely believed to be hurtling toward elections — the fourth in two years. The Knesset last Wednesday gave initial approval to a bill to dissolve the parliament amid a budget crisis and call a new vote. The legislation requires three more votes to be final.

Sa’ar independent run could further splinter the right-wing vote, which is now divided between Likud and Naftali Bennett’s Yamina. Recent polls have shown significant gains for Yamina, which is currently in the opposition, though Likud remains the largest party.

Bennett has announced he is seeking to replace Netanyahu as prime minister and Sa’ar will likely do the same.

A former minister in successive Netanyahu governments, Sa’ar, 53, last year ran against Netanyahu in the Likud leadership primary last December. He was handily defeated by the incumbent, who picked up 72% of the vote.

Netanyahu, 70, has consistently sought to weaken colleagues perceived as potential challengers. Sa’ar has repeatedly accused his former mentor of sidelining him.

Having previously worked as a lawyer and journalist, he was brought into politics by Netanyahu in 1999, serving as cabinet secretary for the final few months of Netanyahu’s first government. He was elected to the Knesset in 2003.

In September 2014, while serving as interior minister under Netanyahu, he abruptly announced he would “take a break” from politics to spend more time with his family. In April 2017, he announced his return to politics and to Likud, but has remained on the outs with Netanyahu, and did not get any position in the current government despite coming in fifth in the February 2019 general party primaries.

Header: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with Gideon Sa’ar during a Likud party meeting at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem on March 11, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Source: Agencies via TOI