- - Monday, December 23, 2019

JERUSALEM — He has defied and defeated his many adversaries — political and legal, domestic and foreign — for a decade, but now a new threat to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s grip on power here has emerged much closer to home, from within his own ruling Likud Party.

Former Education Minister Gideon Saar is an underdog in the fight, but he has waged what pundits say is an energetic challenge to the prime minister in Likud’s leadership primary that will be held Dec. 26.

With Mr. Netanyahu, 70, locked in a political stalemate that has produced two inconclusive national elections this year and an unprecedented third vote set for March, the 53-year-old Mr. Saar has positioned himself as the natural heir for the embattled prime minister and one who can form a new ruling coalition that has eluded his former boss.

He also comes without the considerable baggage of Mr. Netanyahu, baggage that includes indictments for fraud, bribery and corruption handed down by prosecutors in November, charges the prime minister vigorously denies.

Likud members must admit that a prime minister who is respected and admired is stuck and that there is no chance he will form a government after the March election,” Mr. Saar said at a Dec. 16 rally in Or Yehuda near Tel Aviv.



Mr. Netanyahu, Mr. Saar argues, has been sidetracked by the corruption investigations and by his inability to strike a deal with the center-left Blue and White Party after the elections in April and September. Blue and White party leaders now have ruled out sharing power with a Netanyahu-led Likud in light of the recent indictments.

It is still an uphill battle for Mr. Saar, the toughest of a political career in which he has long been seen as a rising star within Likud.

Born in Tel Aviv in 1966, he was a staff sergeant in the army and became the late Likud Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Cabinet secretary before running for office.

Mr. Saar entered the Knesset in 2003 at the height of the Second Intifada, when Likud under Sharon crushed the leftist Labor Party. He pushed for greater outreach to Christians and support for Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. He rose to be a Likud Parliamentary Group chair and deputy speaker of the Knesset.

Mr. Netanyahu, whose second stint as prime minister began in 2009, showed his confidence in Mr. Saar, naming him first as education minister and then minister of the interior. Mr. Saar quickly rose to second on the party’s election list behind the prime minister in the 2013 elections, an indication he was being groomed as a leader of the party and potential successor to Mr. Netanyahu.

But his surprise resignation from office a year later left questions about his intentions.

“I would like to deal with various other challenges, maybe enjoy myself,” Mr. Saar said at the time. “Over the past two years, including on the backdrop of changes in my personal life, I have many times considered taking a break from public life. It’s tough to leave.”

But there was also speculation at the time about a rift with Mr. Netanyahu.

After joining Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies in 2015, Mr. Saar returned to public life in 2017, and has had an uneasy relationship with Mr. Netanyahu ever since. He began calling for primaries within Likud in November in the wake of the corruption indictments and as it was clear the country was heading for third elections in a year.

Arguing for a change

He has taken direct aim at Mr. Netanyahu in the run-up to the Dec. 26 primary, warning that if there isn’t change inside the Likud ranks, the center-left Blue and White party and its leftist allies could take power.

Israel hasn’t had a left-leaning government since the late 1990s. Former Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, who leads the Blue and White party, is seen as a centrist who would rely on smaller left-wing parties for a coalition.

Political analysts in Israel have suggested that Mr. Gantz and his allies are watching Mr. Saar’s challenge with alarm, fearing that Likud could actually prove a more formidable opponent without a weakened Mr. Netanyahu as its standard-bearer.

Arsen Ostrovsky, an Israel-based Middle East foreign policy and political analyst, said that there is no denying that Mr. Netanyahu, a formidable campaigner, has made an indelible contribution to Israel’s security, diplomatic achievements and strength. But there are signs the hawkish prime minister, who counts President Trump as a friend and political ally, may have finally worn out his welcome.

“Whereas for many years it was [Mr. Netanyahu] who brought the Likud to power, it now appears that he is also the one today holding them from power,” Mr. Ostrovsky said.

Given the myriad security, diplomatic and domestic challenges facing Israel, the country cannot continue its political paralysis indefinitely, the analyst said.

“It is time our country’s leadership put ego aside for the greater good of the state of Israel,” he said.

Despite Mr. Netanyahu’s hawkish reputation, Mr. Saar is seen as farther to the right on a number of issues. While largely avoiding discussion of Mr. Netanyahu’s legal struggles — which many in Likud believe are politically motivated — Mr. Saar has urged a tougher line on issues such as dealing with the Palestinians, overhauling the legal system and extending Israeli sovereignty over settlements on land claimed by the Palestinians.

Ksenia Svetlova, a former Knesset member and now an analyst with the Institute for Policy and Strategy at IDC Herzliya, said Mr. Saar has left his mark on Israeli politics already when he was education minister pushing more right-leaning causes such as visits to the West Bank.

“He has showed independence, this is his strategy to differentiate himself because [there are] so many contenders to inherit Netanyahu’s leadership,” she said. She believes that Mr. Saar chose to challenge Mr. Netanyahu now to show that he ready to lead the party, if not in the next election then in those that come later.

Mr. Netanyahu has largely ignored the gibes of his younger rival, although last week he referred to Mr. Saar’s challenge as “subversive.”

A recent Agence France-Presse survey found that just 5 of Likud’s 32 sitting Knesset members — and no ministers in the Netanyahu Cabinet — back Mr. Saar publicly. Mr. Netanyahu has a strong motivation to stay in power, if only as leverage as he faces his legal problems.

But Mr. Saar, in his well-attended Dec. 16 campaign kick-off, made a bottom-line argument for why Likud members should oust the longest-serving prime minister in the country’s history.

Mr. Netanyahu, Mr. Saar said, “brought us to power four times, but the writing is on the wall. There won’t be a fifth time.”

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