Gideon Sa'ar, Netanyahu Rival, Breaks With Likud to Start New Party

Chaim Levinson
Chaim Levinson
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Gideon Sa'ar's announcement, Tuesday, December 8, 2020
Gideon Sa'ar's announcement, Tuesday, December 8, 2020Credit: Haaretz
Chaim Levinson
Chaim Levinson

Senior Likud member Gideon Sa'ar announced Tuesday evening that he is leaving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's party and intends to establish a new party ahead of a possible election campaign – which would be Israel's fourth in roughly two years. 

Lawmakers from Derech Eretz party, Yoaz Handel and long time ally of Sa'ar, Zvi Hauser, are expected to announce later this week that they will run jointly with Sa'ar. 

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Other Potential candidates to join Sa'ar's new party are lawmakers Yifat Shasha-Biton of Likud and former Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot.  

"Likud has been my political, and to a certain degree, my emotional home for all my life," Sa'ar said in a special statement to the media on Tuesday evening.

"The Likud has increasingly and dramatically changed its path in recent years. The movement has become a tool to serve the interests of the prime minister, including those related to his criminal trial," Sa'ar charged.

"I can no longer support a government led by Netanyahu and I cannot be a member of his party," he added. "I have decided to establish a new political movement that will run against Netanyahu for the premiership, with the intention of replacing him."

Likud swiftly issued a response, stating: “Sa’ar is leaving because he was defeated in the primaries and, in recent internal polls conducted by the Likud, he has fallen below tenth (slot on the Likud slate). Sa’ar swore time and time again that ‘The Likud is my home and I won’t leave it even if I lose. I don’t believe in fragments of parties.’”

Opposition leader Yair Lapid meanwhile congratulated Sa'ar for "the brave decision to go out on his own. We have different opinions on many issues, but Israeli politics needs rational, caring people who won't give in to authority and corruption."

Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin compared Sa'ar to other Likud members who left the fold: "Our friend Moshe Kahlon also left Likud and in the end joined a Likud government and rejoined the party. Others who left Likud, like Tzipi Livni, quickly lost the public's trust and found themselves out of the Knesset."

Head of the Balad faction of the Arab Joint List Mtanes Shehadeh also lashed out at Sa'ar, saying: Head of the Balad faction of the Joint List Mtanes Shehadeh said: "Racist Sa'ar attacks and splits from racist Netanyahu and soon we'll see the permanent and banal parade of generals to another right-wing list offering the exact same thing. They present no solution for the hundreds of thousands of citizens affected by the existential and economic crisis, or the millions of Palestinians struggling under the occupation. We will continue our political struggle no matter which racist is leading the government."

The veteran Likud lawmaker's announcement comes a few days after the Knesset voted to dissolve itself in a preliminary vote

Sa'ar, who has garnered significant support among Likud voters and is perceived as Netanyahu's rival, plans to form a center-right party while trying to convince former and current lawmakers, as well as other prominent figures who have not yet entered politics, to join his roster.

According to the Basic Law on the Knesset, lawmakers who left their faction without resigning from the Knesset cannot run in an upcoming election as part of a party that had representation in the outgoing Knesset. Should these lawmakers choose to run anyway, they would have to do so as part of a new slate.

Sa'ar and defectors from other parties who would join him to form a new party are not obligated to resign from the Knesset since they are not joining an existing roster. But if Sa'ar seeks to join forces with other existing parties, he would have to resign from the Knesset.

In 2019, Sa'ar launched his campaign to challenge Netanyahu for the Likud party's primary election, saying that "there is no one in politics for whom I did more" than Netanyahu, and that he does not regret it.

Speaking before hundreds of supporters, Sa'ar said the prime minister has "hurt me, hounded me, paid me back with pain for my good deeds, because I always did my best to focus on the good of the party and the good of the state."

Netanyahu eventually beat Sa'ar with 72.5 percent of the vote to the latter's 27.5 percent.

Before the primary election was held, Sa'ar said that if he were in Netanyahu's shoes, he would quit after failing twice to form a government. "I think he [Netanyahu] should have shown responsibility, not just because of the indictments against him, but rather because the country is stuck, we're in deadlock," Sa'ar said, referring to the three criminal charges against the prime minister.    

Last week, the Knesset passed a bill to dissolve itself in a preliminary vote with Alternate Prime Minister and Kahol Lavan head Benny Gantz's support.

Sixty-one lawmakers voted in favor, and 54 voted against. The proposal will now go to the Legislative Committee for discussion.

The prime minister blasted Gantz, saying that "he is unfortunately being dragged down" by Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett, the respective leaders of the Yesh Atid-Telem and Yamina opposition parties "because they do not care, because they have no responsibility.”

The coalition agreement signed by Likud and Kahol Lavan dictated that a two-year budget, as opposed to a one-year budget, be passed by the government, following its formation in May. While Kahol Lavan has acted in furtherance of passing a two-year budget, Likud has refused to do so. 

If the 2020 budget is not passed by December 23, the Knesset will be disbanded automatically, and Israel will enter another round of elections.

Likud would like to move quickly to pass the 2020 budget by December 23, but postpone the 2021 budget vote to March. Gantz, however, wants both budgets passed within the next month, and plans to demand an accelerated timetable.

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