Cool Tel Avivian or Pro-settler Nationalist? Netanyahu Could Be Ousted by This Man

Gideon Sa'ar was an outsider far to the right of Likud, but he went on to help Netanyahu transform the party from a beaten shell of itself to a fighting parliamentary machine. Now he's back to try to take over the party

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Cool secular Tel Avivian or pro-settler nationalist? Meet Gideon Sa'ar, the man trying to oust Benjamin Netanyahu from the Likud's leadership
Cool secular Tel Avivian or pro-settler nationalist? Meet Gideon Sa'ar, the man trying to oust Benjamin Netanyahu from the Likud's leadershipCredit: Daniel Bar-On
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Last Wednesday, Geula Cohen was laid to rest on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. The former Knesset member and matriarch of the Israeli right wing had died just a week short of her 94th birthday. President Reuven Rivlin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu both attended and eulogized her, as did her son, Likud minister Tzachi Hanegbi.

One of Cohen’s oldest comrades sought out another Likud politician standing a few rows back. “Geula said many years ago that you would one day be prime minister,” the comrade whispered to , a former Likud minister and the only candidate running against Netanyahu in .

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Gideon Sa'ar at Geula Cohen's funeral at the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, December 18, 2019.
Gideon Sa'ar at Geula Cohen's funeral at the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, December 18, 2019.Credit: Hadas Parush/Flash90

Few remember it, but Geula Cohen was one of the earliest political influences and mentors of Gideon Zarechansky, as he was known then. Neither of the two were Likud members. Cohen was a leader of the smaller, far-right Tehiya party, and Sa’ar, a former national organizer of the youth wing, remained active in the party as a student. If Cohen had listened to Sa’ar and like-minded party members in 1992 and not pulled out of Yitzhak Shamir’s Likud government, Israeli history might have turned out differently.

The place that has become synonymous with Sa’ar’s image is Tel Aviv   where he was born and lives today. He’s the Tel Aviv Likudnik. Of course, there’s nothing out of the ordinary about Sa’ar living and socializing in Tel Aviv, except for the fact that in so many people’s minds, the Israel of Tel Aviv is the antithesis of the Israel of Likud. Being a consummate Tel Avivian makes Sa’ar, mistakenly, seem to many people somehow less of a staunch nationalist.

Sa’ar actually spent part of his childhood in a much more left-wing environment than Tel Aviv. When he was 2, the family, following father Shmuel’s job as a pediatrician, moved to the Negev town of Mitzpeh Ramon, and two years later to nearby Kibbutz Sde Boker, where they lived for five years.

Shmuel Zarechansky’s job as the kibbutz doctor meant he also came into regular contact with Sde Boker’s most illustrious resident, , whose archives contain the medications and diet prescribed him in Zarechansky’s haphazard handwriting. His eldest son Gideon would sometimes join him when he visited the Old Man in his kibbutz bungalow.

Ben-Gurion, as leader of Zionism's socialist wing, had an often tempestuous relationship with the leaders of the right-wing Zionist-Revisionist movement that later became Likud: Ze'ev Jabotinsky and Menachem Begin. More than once he accused them of fascistic and even Nazi tendencies. His relationship with the young Gideon Sa’ar seems to have been much friendlier, replete with geography quizzes for the young boy, who already took a keen interest in politics.

Whatever effect getting to know Israel’s founding father may have had on Sa’ar, it didn’t seem to influence his politics. A few years after the family returned to Tel Aviv, he joined the youth wing of Tehiya, which had been founded in 1979 by Cohen, a Likud MK who broke with the party when Begin signed the Camp David peace accords with Egypt. This included Israel's returning of the Sinai Peninsula and agreeing to hold autonomy talks over the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Tehiya MKs in the Knesset, with Geula Cohen tearing up a mock version of the Camp David Accords during a speech by then-U.S. President Jimmy Carter.
Tehiya MKs in the Knesset, with Geula Cohen tearing up a mock version of the Camp David Accords during a speech by then-U.S. President Jimmy Carter. Credit: Yaakov Saar / GPO

Tehiya, which means revival, was the party of Israelis who felt that Likud had lost its nationalist principles when it became the party of government in 1977. But as a party which tried to cater both to the secular right and to religious settlers, it failed to win more than a handful of Knesset seats in elections, flitted between the governing coalition and the opposition, and lasted only 13 years. During that period, Sa’ar and Zvi Hauser, today a MK, were leaders of Tehiya's youth and student groups. A less prominent member of the youth wing was , now defense minister.

Each of them, Sa’ar, Hauser and Bennett, went on to join Likud, serve as a close aide to Netanyahu, and end up a bitter critic and rival of Bibi within the right wing.

In an interview with the daily Maariv as a high school senior, just before the 1984 election, Sa'ar was scornful of the two big parties, Likud and Labor. He said the two were “betraying the public and especially us [young voters] .... To achieve what they want, they ramp up fanaticism and hatred. How am I supposed to feel when I’m treated like an idiot and expected to choose who to run the country?”

Politics were everything for Sa’ar as a teenager. He loved music and began collecting for what would become his extensive record collection, but his social life was devoted to Tehiya. He even met his first wife, Shelly, at a right-wing demonstration.

In the interview, Sa’ar said he intended to join the Paratroopers for his army service: “I won’t be doing it for [Labor’s Shimon] Peres and not for [Likud’s Yitzhak] Shamir. But I’ll do it with all my energy so it's clear that Jews can live here and that there are those who will defend them from those who think otherwise.”

He ended up serving not in the Paratroopers but in the slightly less prestigious Golani infantry brigade. After his discharge in 1987, he spent six years studying political science and then law.

Gideon Sa'ar and Benjamin Netanyahu at a special cabinet meeting in Jerusalem commemorating the 100th anniversary of Menachem Begin's birth, July 21, 2013.
Gideon Sa'ar and Benjamin Netanyahu at a special cabinet meeting in Jerusalem commemorating the 100th anniversary of Menachem Begin's birth, July 21, 2013.Credit: Reuters

He kept up his political activism, this time in the right-wing student union at Tel Aviv University, which was run jointly by Likud and Tehiya members. Right-wingers at TAU have always been a distinct minority, just as they were when Sa'ar went to Tichon Hadash High School in north Tel Aviv. But he never found his political activism a social disadvantage. His first job after the army was as a reporter and then  a columnist in the mildly anarchic weekly Haolam Hazeh, from where he soon moved on to Hadashot, a daily tabloid owned by the Haaretz Group.

Netanyahu's Likud

The six years he spent as a part-time journalist would influence his future career. For a start, when he began publishing articles, he changed his last name from Zarechansky to Sa’ar, Hebrew for storm. And in the eyes of some, even though there is no evidence whatsoever that he moderated his political views, the fact that he worked for two newspapers clearly aligned with the left still taints him as a suspect leftist. His reporting also brought him in contact with   Likud's new meteor, former UN Ambassador Benjamin Netanyahu, who in 1988 shocked the party by winning the first round of voting for the party’s Knesset slate.

Tehiya was part of Shamir’s last government, formed in June 1990. But 18 months later, following Shamir’s decision under intense U.S. pressure to attend the Madrid peace conference with Palestinian representatives, the party left the coalition in protest.

“It was a controversial move to bail on a right-wing government,” said a senior member of the party at the time. “Geula Cohen, who was always more radical, was the main force behind it. Yuval Ne'eman and the group around him were more pragmatic and argued that it could lead to the left coming to power. Sa’ar was part of that group, but they lost the argument. And in the end they were proved right.”

Without the far right’s support, Shamir was forced to call an early election for June 1992. The vote took place during a period of Palestinian stabbing attacks. With Shamir's credibility eroded by the ongoing intifada, Labor, once again under the leadership of “Mr. Security” Yitzhak Rabin, won the election. Tehiya, which had been blamed by many right-wingers for bringing down the Likud government, failed to pass the electoral threshold. Without any MKs, Tehiya disbanded after many of its members, including Cohen and Sa’ar, joined Likud.

Upon completing his law degree and passing the bar, Sa’ar abandoned journalism for a second short career at a place seen by many Likudniks as another bastion of the left – the Justice Ministry. He worked as an assistant to the attorney general and then to the state prosecutor, but politics remained his first calling.

At the end of 1998, Netanyahu, then in his first chaotic term as prime minister, found himself in a very similar position to that of Shamir seven years earlier. He had been forced by U.S. President Bill Clinton to attend the Wye River summit with Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, and following the agreement signed there, the far-right members of his coalition pulled out. As preparations for an early election began, Netanyahu’s cabinet secretary, Danny Naveh, resigned so he could run for a spot on the Likud ticket.

Netanyahu offered the job to Zvi Hauser, who was loath to move to the cabinet secretariat, where he was sure he'd have a short tenure because Netanyahu was widely expected to lose the election to . So he suggested his old friend from the Tehiya youth movement, Sa’ar.

Appointing Sa’ar, who had just moved to the Tel Aviv district prosecutor's office, had a number of advantages from Netanyahu’s perspective. He was already a civil servant so he could be appointed immediately. He was politically reliable and the chronically suspicious Netanyahu already knew him.

The cabinet secretary, in charge of coordinating the prime minister’s agenda, the government’s legislative affairs and ministerial committees, is one of the most complex positions in the civil service. But the 32-year-old Sa’ar, with his political mind, wonkishness,  lightning ability to master the most detailed briefs and by then high-level legal experience proved a natural fit. The only catch was that Netanyahu indeed lost the election and Sa'ar was out of the job in just six months.

Instead of heading back to the Justice Ministry, Sa’ar embarked on yet another brief career, this time as a lawyer in the private sector. But when Barak’s government turned out to be the most short-lived in Israeli history, and won a special election for prime minister in March 2001, Sa’ar was called back to serve as cabinet secretary once again.

Sa'ar is a man with a knack for details, and Ariel Sharon found in him an experienced politician. Sharon with Sa'ar in the Knesset in July 2005.
Sa'ar is a man with a knack for details, and Ariel Sharon found in him an experienced politician. Sharon with Sa'ar in the Knesset in July 2005.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Sharon's whip

Sa’ar had not been close to Sharon, another Likud leader who demanded fanatical loyalty from his aides. And Sa’ar was widely seen as Netanyahu’s man.

But the newly elected prime minister needed someone with experience, as he was about to take control of a government in which Likud was of a similar size as the Labor and Shas parties. Sharon knew he would struggle to implement his agenda while dealing with the second intifada and fending off leadership challenges from Netanyahu. Sa’ar, however, had impressed Sharon when he served on Likud’s negotiating team in the coalition talks with Labor. Sharon convinced him to shutter his new law firm and return to public service.

Sa’ar’s success in gaining Sharon’s confidence can be gauged by the fact that two years later, Sharon tapped the newly elected MK as Likud's floor leader and coalition whip.

The next few years would be stormy for the party, as the Sharon-Netanyahu rivalry tore Likud apart. And then there was the disengagement plan from Gaza. Unlike Likudniks such as Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni who went along with Sharon’s plan and gradually dropped the “whole Land of Israel” position they had been brought up on, Sa’ar remained faithful to the Tehiya principles, which he interpreted as Likud’s fundamental Jabotinskean values, and voted against the prime minister’s plan to withdraw from Gaza. But as floor leader and coalition whip, he had the responsibility of ensuring that the government had a functioning majority in the Knesset. Twice he resigned from the post and was pressured by Sharon to remain.

Ariel Sharon flanked by Benjamin Netanyahu and Gideon Sa'ar during a Likud party meeting in 2003.
Ariel Sharon flanked by Benjamin Netanyahu and Gideon Sa'ar during a Likud party meeting in 2003.Credit: Yehuda Witzman

In November 2005, with the disengagement from Gaza complete, Sharon announced that he was leaving Likud and forming a new centrist party, Kadima. Sa’ar was offered by Sharon a prominent spot on the new party’s list, but he refused to leave along with Olmert and Livni, and even Cohen's son Hanegbi. He knew full well that Likud, once again under Netanyahu, was heading for an electoral downfall. But even he didn’t expect it to win only 12 seats in the 2006 election. On election night, as the results came in, the knives were out for Netanyahu, but Sa’ar was one of the handful of MKs who joined the leader onstage as he made his concession speech.

It would not be exaggerating to say that Netanyahu owes his comeback, from the lowest point in his political career back to the prime minister’s office three years later, in large part to Sa’ar. Once again, Sa'ar was appointed Likud floor leader, where he helped rally the party around Netanyahu and fend off the challenges to his leadership, while also working to erode the Kadima coalition. It seemed at first an impossible task, with Likud so diminished and Kadima, now under Olmert, positioning itself as the new party of power.

But Sa’ar proved himself a master of both Knesset procedure and political intrigue, locating and exploiting every crack in the Kadima coalition, obstructing government legislation and prizing away rebels. He transformed Likud from a beaten shell of itself into a fighting parliamentary machine.

Sa’ar’s work in opposition would be recognized by party members when he was elected to the top spot in the party's 2009 primary and once again in 2013. With Likud back in government, he was awarded by Netanyahu the senior ministerial portfolios of education in 2009 and the interior in 2013.

But ultimately, Netanyahu never lets others flourish around him for long, and Sa’ar was already being talked up as a future prime minister. Sa’ar was also proving a bit too independent for Netanyahu's liking, as was another popular Likudnik and staunch Jabotinskean, Reuven Rivlin.

In June 2014, Netanyahu did everything in his power to prevent Rivlin from being elected president, going so far as to try to abolish the presidency. When that failed, he tried to offer it to an incredulous non-Israeli, Elie Wiesel.

Gideon Sa'ar at a Likud party event in central Israel on December 23 2019
Gideon Sa'ar at a Likud party event in central Israel on December 23 2019Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

It was Sa’ar who masterminded Rivlin’s successful campaign. Sa’ar could claim that he was only doing his duty: to ensure the election of the candidate endorsed by Likud's Knesset representation. But his relationship with Netanyahu would never recover. Three months later, he announced that he was taking a break from politics. There was no doubt, however, that this was temporary. Five years ago it was clear that Sa’ar would be back and one day take on Netanyahu.

Cool Sa'ar vs. Gideon the nationalist

In his 13 years as an MK and a minister, Sa’ar constructed a dual persona. There’s the cool secular Tel Avivian with his glamorous second wife, television anchor Geula Even, constantly by his side. This cool Sa’ar occasionally did guest DJ stints in trendy clubs and is beloved by the media, where he has a number of friends and key allies who receive off-the-record briefings from him. Cool Sa’ar is a liberal whose first law in the Knesset curbed the police’s power to handcuff suspects brought to court. Cool Sa’ar is the only male MK to chair the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality, and he pushed through legislation extending paid maternity leave to 14 weeks.

Then there’s Gideon the nationalist, who as education minister made high schools send their students on tours of the Jewish settlement in Hebron and upgraded the status of what would become Ariel University in the West Bank. Gideon the nationalist as interior minister set up the Holot detention center for African asylum seekers in the Negev and drastically reduced the number of bureaucrats handling their asylum requests.

But he was cool Sa’ar as education minister as well; for example, when he dramatically increased teachers’ salaries and extended free childcare to 3-year-olds. And he was cool as interior minister when he extended the boundaries of local councils – including those of the Negev Bedouin – to areas paying high local taxes, thus increasing the poor communities’ budgets.

The media loves cool Sa’ar mainly because he’s not Netanyahu. He plays by the rules and doesn’t overtly incite against leftists and Arabs. But his Likudnik supporters vote for Gideon the nationalist because unlike previous Likud leaders, he has never voted for a pullback or settlement freeze.

Sa’ar has never once criticized Netanyahu’s policies. On anything. He only criticizes what he claims is a lack of action and implementation. As he put it Tuesday evening at a meeting with supporters in Jerusalem: “I won’t just talk about extending sovereignty to the settlements in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] and the Jordan Valley. I’ll do it.”

Has the Likud grown tired enough of Netanyahu to elect Sa'ar?
Has the Likud grown tired enough of Netanyahu to elect Sa'ar? A party member stands next to a poster of Netanyahu. Credit: Meged Gozani

Does this mean he could become the most right-wing prime minister in Israeli history, but one with a cool Tel Aviv exterior? Is he simply a slightly older, male version of right-winger Ayelet Shaked, who sometimes gets a pass because she too is secular?

Sa’ar’s supporters insist that this is the real Likud, which still goes by the official title National Liberal Party. To Sa’ar’s credit, he may even be more right-wing than Netanyahu in many ways, but unlike the prime minister, who only takes an interest in security, diplomacy and macroeconomics, Sa’ar has actual social policies, especially on education, on which he can expand in great detail and at excruciating length.

He’s a details guy, and he didn’t start to care, for example, about the rights of criminal suspects only when a Likud prime minister became one. Jabotinsky wasn’t just a nationalist, he wrote extensively on civil rights as well, and Sa’ar can quote Jabotinsky for hours.

His chances of beating Netanyahu this time around aren’t considered very high. Sa’ar is too calculated a politician to embark on a campaign just for a small chance of victory. This is part of a long-term strategy of positioning himself as Netanyahu’s likely heir, even though this strategy will probably need another leadership election after Netanyahu is forced out of office. Unless Sa’ar loses very badly Thursday, he will have placed himself in many Likudniks’ minds as their next leader.

His fans in the party liken him to Yitzhak Shamir, Likud’s most rigidly ideological leader, but also its least charismatic. When alone with his close friends, Sa’ar can be funny and engaging, but a stiffness plagues him in public. His speeches are competent, especially when it comes to mastering detail, but he’s incapable of casting a spell on an audience, as Netanyahu can in a way that seems almost effortless, or in the passionate way Menachem Begin had.

“You don’t feel any electricity when Gideon comes into the room,” said a supporter waiting for him Tuesday evening in Jerusalem. “He’s a quiet person. But after so many years of Bibi, we need a bit of quiet.”