Why Cry Over Gideon Sa’ar?

The Likud minister is smart and ambitious, but his most noteworthy achievement to date is being snubbed by Netanyahu.

Amir Oren
Amir Oren
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Interior Minister Gideon Sa'ar.
Interior Minister Gideon Sa'ar.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Amir Oren
Amir Oren

On March 31, 1968, U.S. President Lyndon Johnson addressed the American people and informed them of an important change in policy regarding his conduct of the Vietnam War. At the end of the speech, with studied casualness, and despite the pleas of a handful of associates, Johnson dropped a bomb: He was quitting the race for the Democratic nomination for president. Appeals were to no avail; the president had had enough.

Gideon Sa’ar had a Johnsonian moment last week. His supporters were stunned and the media responded as if it had suffered a terrible loss: Our crown has fallen, woe unto us! How will we manage without Gideon, except for the paparazzi and mama-razzi who will make a good living monitoring the growth of little David? Sa’ar, a Real Madrid fan, was suddenly upgraded to the status of a political Cristiano Ronaldo.

Why, exactly, were flags being lowered to half-mast? What good has Sa’ar’s decade-and-a-half in politics done for the people of Israel? How were the personal talents of this ambitious, smart and articulate man – who is no worse than his rivals in Likud and other parties, but no better, either – put to use for the common good? Sa’ar would have a hard time claiming any great achievements in either the education or interior ministries, and disrupting secular life in Tel Aviv on Saturdays to court the religious vote lost him a potential reservoir of support that he’ll never get back.

His greatest virtue is the mutual hostility between him and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but this is a personal issue that does not prove Sa’ar’s merits. He did not translate it into a presentation of a different diplomatic platform. There is no sign that Sa’ar understands Israel’s deteriorating situation in depth, and that he is bold enough to defy his Likud adherents – most of whom, feeling bitter and betrayed, abandoned him after the announcement – to seek a solution to the fatal conflict with the Palestinians. The young and more attractive version of Netanyahu, the man and the couple, offered no substantial improvement.

The complaint against Netanyahu, that those Likud activists at his side and beneath him are not being allowed to develop as leaders, is correct but puzzling. After all, that’s the way of the political world. There is no Israeli prime minister who ever laid the groundwork for the awful but realistic possibility that at some point he would leave, willingly or unwillingly, and some stranger would take his place. Not David Ben-Gurion – who only cultivated the generation (Moshe Dayan, Shimon Peres) that came after the next generation (Moshe Sharett, Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir); and who didn’t only avoid grooming heirs, but battled them when they dared to succeed him. None of them – Eshkol, Golda, Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, Yitzhak Rabin, Peres, or Ariel Sharon – groomed a successor. Netanyahu is no exception.

Under the Direct Election Law, which limited prime ministers to seven consecutive years in power, there was some sort of incentive to establishing a dynasty, so that the next in line wouldn’t be an enemy of his predecessor. But the law was repealed after three elections. It’s not just that way in governments, but in parties, as well; no party leader particularly wants a No. 2 that the public might consider a reasonable replacement. Yair Lapid has no crown prince in Yesh Atid. Avigdor Lieberman doesn’t show excessive fondness for any of his Yisrael Beiteinu MKs. When internal surveys among the Russian-speaking public revealed that Stas Misezhnikov was starting to approach Lieberman’s popularity figures and he began to eye the foreign ministry post, which Lieberman would have had to abandon if he had been prosecuted – it was clear that Misezhnikov’s end was near.

All this contradicts the concept of a cabinet led by a prime minister who is merely the first among equals, but unfortunately for Israel, is in the hands of power-seekers whose struggles are merely aggressive, lacking any ideological dimension.

Not that preferring an external adversary over an internal one is an Israeli invention. After that speech announcing his retirement, Johnson didn’t work too hard to help his vice-president, Hubert Humphrey, defeat Richard Nixon so that Humphrey could succeed him.

Interior Minister Gideon Sa'ar announces 'time out' from politics, September 17, 2014.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

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