The Likud minister no one ever thought would quit dropped his bombshell last night at a festive gathering of party activists marking the new Jewish year. While announcing his resignation, Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar significantly failed to utter two words – neither Benjamin, nor Netanyahu.
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In departing from politics for an indefinite period – or “time out,” as he put it – Sa’ar, until recently the prime minister’s confidant and crony, never even mentioned the man who made him a minister.
Sa’ar had tried to quit three times in the last two years. The first was before the last Knesset election, but Communications Minister Moshe Kahlon beat him to it. Sa’ar waited, perhaps fearing the damage that a resounding double walkout would cause the party.
The second time was a little after the election, but his friend Reuven Rivlin asked him not to abandon him in the midst of the race for presidency, Sa’ar said. He planned to leave just after the presidential election, in mid-June, but then the three teens were kidnapped and murdered and the military campaign in Gaza began. It wasn’t the time for a political move.
Last week Sa’ar timed his announcement to coincide with the Rosh Hashanah toast with party activists. Sa’ar had confided to Netanyahu that he was considering this move, but the prime minister chose not to believe him. Netanyahu even suspected Sa’ar of plotting to oust him and take his place.
It’s no secret that in the past 18 months, since the government was formed, Netanyahu made Sa’ar’s life miserable, just like he did to Kahlon in the previous term, until the latter left, swearing never to return to Likud as long as Bibi was there.
Sa’ar was ejected by Netanyahu from the security cabinet and became an enemy of the Netanyahus when he actively supported Rivlin for president.
Sa’ar’s resignation is good news and bad news for the prime minister. The good news is that the man regarded as Netanyahu’s greatest threat to being re-elected as party leader has left the stage.
The bad news is that Likud is not at its best. The popular Kahlon is setting up a rival party, Communications Minister Gilad Erdan (no. 3 on Likud’s Knesset list) intends to leave Israel and become its ambassador to the UN. And now Sa’ar, no. 2 on the list and a prominent, ambitious minister, is abandoning ship. Likud may be left without its relatively young, attractive leadership. This is cause for grave concern for the leader of the party that kicked out Benny Begin, Dan Meridor and Michael Eitan only two years ago.
Sa’ar’s departure may trigger some gloomy reflections about the ruling party. Netanyahu was chosen as its leader in 1993. Now, 21 years later, anyone who leaves it seems to prosper. Avigdor Lieberman is today leader of Yisrael Beiteinu. Naftali Bennett, Netanyahu’s former chief of staff, is now leader of Habayit Hayehudi. Kahlon may soon be at the helm of yet another party. This suggests that under Netanyahu nothing can grow. Anyone who showed promise turned, in the leader’s eyes, from ally to schemer and traitor. He was doomed.
Sa’ar’s dramatic step and speech suggest that he may join Kahlon. His words - “we must raise the social banner…we must not hurt the weaker classes…we must not steal the poor man’s sheep…” - echoed Kahlon’s statements. The idea that the two may join forces to run against him must have passed through Netanyahu’s mind on Wednesday.
Sa’ar is leaving behind many questions and quite a few opportunities. One thing no one will argue about. Likud, the government and the entire political system lost one of their rising stars on Wednesday. It remains to be seen for how long.