Analysis

Netanyahu Rival Lays Groundwork for Prime Ministerial Run With Well-timed Comeback

During his 30-month hiatus from politics, Gideon Sa'ar didn't fade away or evaporate, but even grew stronger, say the polls.

Likud's Gideon Sa'ar announcing his return to politics after a break of 30 months in the northern Israeli city of Acre, on April 3, 2017.
Gil Eliahu

Gideon Sa’ar’s announcement Monday night in Acre that he was ending the break he took from political life two-and-a-half years ago was not much of a surprise. It was clear to all the relevant people in his Likud party that it was now, or never. If Sa’ar did not make his comeback before the next election then it would never happen. When would he have returned? In 2022? In 2024? When his young son David begins practicing for his bar mitzvah?

Sa’ar wants to be there, in the midst of things, when the time comes to run for the party leadership. Whether it happens because of an indictment against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, or after an electoral loss, or the next time the Likud constitution demands that primaries be held, somewhere in late 2023.

In practice, if Sa'ar wants to be prime minister, he has to be there. The law allows only a member of Knesset to serve as prime minister. To achieve this, he will have to run for a place on the Likud slate next time around, try to return to the top spot he won before, and then wait. Like everyone else. These people are good at waiting. They are used to it. Patience is their middle name.

Even though many thought he rushed to jump back into the political swamp because he believes the elections are lurking just around the corner, Sa’ar actually thinks this may not be the case. At least not in 2017. Maybe in the first half of 2018. That would be good for him, he needs time – a year – in order to return to the days of yore.

As he announced in the spartan Likud branch in Acre, he plans on starting on a “cross-Israel” journey, returning to the local party branches, the activists and members, the numerous celebrations, the sweaty kisses. All the wonderful things that await Likud candidates.

During the 30 months of his political break from the Knesset and the cabinet, Sa’ar succeeded, somewhat surprisingly, not to shrink or evaporate, and definitely not to disappear. He even grew stronger in terms of public opinion. Polls published in the media show he has kept a safe, sizable lead over the minister-colleagues he left behind. Sometimes leaving at the right time prevents burnout.

In Monday's speech, he did not do what he was told to do on social networks: Attack Netanyahu. The disagreements between the two are well known. The hatred Netanyahu has for the person considered to be the biggest threat against him within his own party, is known to all too. The obsession of those living in the Prime Minister’s Residence with Sa’ar’s wife, Geula Even-Sa’ar, who was supposed to be the news anchor for the prime-time news show of the new public broadcasting corporation, Kan, is also well known.

But Even-Sa'ar's husband is not suicidal. In Likud they sanctify loyalty to the leader. It is a tradition, it is in the party’s DNA. Gideon Sa’ar’s criticism of Netanyahu was only implied: Likud must be more socially conscious, more resolute about not returning to the 1967 lines and bout building in the settlements, more statesmanlike and more unifying. This is what they want to hear, and this is what they will hear from him, all over Israel.