Netanyahu's Biggest Likud Rival Gideon Sa'ar Announces Return to Politics

Two and a half years after taking a 'time-out' from politics, the former minister is back, as early elections loom.

Gideon Sa'ar announcing his return to politics in Acre, April 3, 2017.
Gil Eliyahu

Gideon Sa’ar, a former interior minister and rising star in Likud, announced his return to politics Monday night after a two-and-a-half-year hiatus, presenting a challenge to a key rival: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

"I am returning to public activity and to political activity in our movement, the Likud movement," he told a meeting of party members in the northern city of Acre.

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"The pressures and challenges and the problems are not behind us," Sa'ar said, referring to pressure from abroad that he predicted Israel would face. "A return to the 1967 lines endangers the future of Israel and the security of Israel."

He added: "Likud has always been a standard-bearer for protecting the Land of Israel, building the length and breadth of the Land of Israel. And regarding the entire diplomatic-security subject, Likud has been steadfast on these things as the defensive wall of the State of Israel."

Sa'ar said he intended to travel around the country to meet with Likud members and others to present his political ideas. "We became a free people when we left Egypt, and on the eve of Passover we need to ask ourselves who we are as a people, as a country, as a Likud movement."

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In November 2014, Sa'ar said that he could not advance under Netanyahu and declared a “time-out” from politics, adding that he wanted to spend more time with his wife, news anchor Geula Even Sa'ar, and their young son. Sa’ar at the time was No. 2 in Likud behind Netanyahu.

Likud sources say Sa’ar’s timing is probably based on expectations that Israel will hold an early election in the next few months, rather than in two years when the current Knesset’s term expires.

Speaking before Sa'ar's announcement, Social Equality Minister Gila Gamliel said his return to public life was sure to strengthen the party.

"I welcome the return of ex-minister Gideon Sa'ar to public service," said Gamliel, a Likud member. "Gideon Sa'ar is a public personality blessed with many talents who stands out among Likud's leaders."

Netanyahu has already announced he will run for reelection as Likud leader.

Since his departure from politics two and a half years ago, Sa’ar has pledged to return and promote change. Throughout his hiatus, he has stayed in close touch with the party rank and file.

He has also published articles setting forth his political views; in January, when Donald Trump became U.S. president, Sa’ar called for a retreat from the two-state solution.

“I was very close to Netanyahu when he returned to government in 2009,” Sa’ar wrote. “Including on the basis of personal knowledge, I’m highly doubtful he would have expressed support back then for the two-state idea  an idea he fought against during most of his political career  if there had been a different president in the White House.”

According to Sa’ar, even if Netanyahu’s conditions such as a demilitarized Palestinian state were appropriate, the geopolitical situation has changed since then.

Also, upon relinquishing his posts in November 2014, Sa’ar called on the cabinet not to slash funding for education, social services or health care, saying the government “must not harm the weak segments of the population” that voted for Likud time and again.

As interior minister in 2013 and 2014, Sa’ar led efforts to stop African migrants from illegally entering the country over the Egyptian border. Between 2009 and 2013 he served as education minister under Netanyahu, who critics say has sought to weaken the power of Israel’s new broadcasting corporation in part to prevent Even-Sa’ar from anchoring the new outfit’s main news program.     

Last week, Netanyahu agreed with Kahlon to spin off the new corporation's news division, which would keep Even-Sa'ar off the air.  

Sa’ar, whose parents came to Israel from Argentina, married Geula Even in 2013; both had children from their first marriages.