Can Gideon Sa’ar unseat Netanyahu?
In an interview with JI, the former Likud minister pledges to restore a bipartisan approach to ties with the U.S.
When Israelis head to the polls next month for the fourth time in just two years, there will be at least one new party on the ballot — headed by a very familiar name in national politics.
Gideon Sa’ar, a longtime Israeli politician and former ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left Likud last year to launch his own party, New Hope, and challenge Netanyahu for the premiership. Positioning himself as the strongest alternative to the prime minister, Sa’ar paints himself as a strong center-right leader not weighed down with the baggage of a prime minister under indictment. But his faltering in the polls in recent weeks has left political analysts wondering if, once again, anyone can manage to oust the long-serving Netanyahu.
Sa’ar says that, if elected prime minister, he will be able to build a strong relationship with President Joe Biden and with members of Congress from both parties, and restore bipartisan ties following Netanyahu’s close alignment with President Donald Trump.
“I am sure I will know how to promote a direct, sincere and effective dialogue with President Biden and the Biden administration,” Sa’ar told Jewish Insider in an interview last week. “I intend to promote policy that will restore the bipartisan principle with regards to our position in the U.S., and it will be important for me to build good relationships with Democrats and Republicans alike.”
Without directly criticizing Netanyahu, Sa’ar expressed confidence that he will be able to repair relationships with not only the Democrat-controlled White House, but also Democratic lawmakers in the Senate and the House.
“I think that President Biden defines himself, from what I know, as a Zionist,” said Sa’ar. “He has a record in all of his longtime political career as a friend of Israel. I believe we can work together and continue the tradition of proper and good relations between both countries. It is necessary for us to work with the two political parties and their representatives, and also with all the segments of the civil society in the United States.”
Addressing the looming showdown over the Iran nuclear deal, Sa’ar adopted a more conciliatory tone than Netanyahu has expressed — though he has also stated his own opposition to the U.S. reentering the deal.
“I think there is a consensus in Israel — and not only Israel, I think it is a regional consensus in the Middle East — that Iran shouldn’t have nuclear weapons,” he said. “And basically the United States of America shares the same approach. So we have a common goal, we have a common objective, and we should work together in order to promote policies that will serve this objective.”
Sa’ar stressed the need for an “effective and sincere dialogue with the American administration” on the issue. “We have a right as a sovereign state to protect our interests by ourselves, but I think the Iranian threat is not only a threat to Israel, it is a threat to all the international community, it is a threat to the security of the Middle East. A nuclear Iran will no doubt promote a nuclear race in the Middle East, between several countries, and therefore, it is extremely important that we will know how to work together to prevent that.”
Dani Dayan, a former settler leader who returned to Israel last year after four years as the Israeli consul general to New York, joined New Hope last month. Dayan told JI that he has known Sa’ar for more than 30 years, and has no doubt he is the right man to build a strong relationship with the Biden administration.
“He is a man of great integrity,” said Dayan. “President Biden and his staff will reveal very quickly that Sa’ar is a man of his word. He will probably be reluctant to make promises but whatever he will promise, he will do.”
Dayan added that Sa’ar “doesn’t simply pay lip service to bipartisanship. He is a great believer in its vital importance to Israel. And he will act accordingly.” Unlike Netanyahu, he said, Sa’ar “is not perceived as an almost registered Republican, and rightly so.”
Sa’ar, 54, is a veteran of Israel’s political scene who first became a cabinet secretary in 1999. He was elected to the Knesset in 2003 and served as education minister and then interior minister under Netanyahu beginning in 2009. He took a five-year break from politics in part to allow his wife, TV anchor Geula Even-Sa’ar, to focus on her career without accusations of bias. He later returned to Likud and, in 2019, unsuccessfully challenged Netanyahu for the leadership of the party, garnering just 28% of the vote.
Late last year, Sa’ar announced he was quitting Likud to run on his own, accusing Netanyahu of turning the party into a “cult of personality” and using it to further his own personal interests rather than serve the national good.
Yitz Applbaum, a California-based venture capitalist and philanthropist and JI’s wine columnist, has been friends with Sa’ar for more than 20 years. And when he first learned that Sa’ar was launching his own party, “it really made my day, week, month and year.”
“He has a plan, he has policies, he has ideas, he’s consistent,” said Applbaum. And while Netanyahu has been “extraordinary” on the foreign policy front, Applbaum said he is confident Sa’ar will prove equally strong on international issues. “His calming tone and his bigger-picture view and his non-transactional view, and the fact that he’s bringing newness to the role… I think he would do extraordinarily well.”
While many see Sa’ar as the strongest possible challenger to Netanyahu, there is little that separates Likud and New Hope ideologically. Sa’ar is a strong proponent of settlement expansion in the West Bank, opposes the creation of a Palestinian state and favors electoral reform — including term limits — as well as enshrining limited judicial review into law, while allowing the Knesset to override Supreme Court rulings.
Dahlia Scheindlin, an Israeli pollster and campaign strategist, posited that New Hope and Likud are largely aligned on most political issues. But she noted that Sa’ar “has been releasing a steady stream of policy statements on various fields” over the past few weeks. “That in itself is different from Likud, because Likud tends not to release a platform.”
“I think that he’s trying to create a distinction that ‘I’m not a populist leader, I’m a leader who is going to propose solutions to issues that are on the public agenda,’” she said. “And I see all of that as part of a concerted effort to distinguish himself from Netanyahu.”
Sa’ar declined to specify how his new party’s policies differentiate from Netanyahu and Likud. “Netanyahu is not the sun and we are not the stars,” he told JI. “I speak about my policies, not about what I am different from.”
The former minister said he welcomed the Abraham Accords and the signing of normalization deals with Arab countries, but warned that he would not pay the price of limiting settlement activity in order to achieve further agreements.
“The commitment that Netanyahu gave the Trump administration… to suspend the issue of sovereignty or implementing Israeli law over our communities in Judea and Samaria, is something that I will no doubt respect,” Sa’ar said. “We have the right to build everywhere in our country,” he said. “And it is something that all Israeli governments since the Six-Day War stood on.”
“We shouldn’t pay with our basic right to live in our ancient homeland in order to achieve these treaties with different countries with no real conflict between them and Israel,” he continued. “And we have proof for that — this agreement didn’t touch those issues,” he said, drawing a distinction between suspending annexation and freezing settlement activity. “So I don’t think [a settlement freeze] is needed. I don’t think it is acceptable.”
With less than two months until the national election on March 23, New Hope is projected to receive only half the seats Likud is garnering in the polls. Scheindlin suggested that Sa’ar’s drop in the polls over the past few weeks could spell trouble for the prime ministerial contender.
“Yesh Atid is closing in and actually overtook Sa’ar in a couple of polls,” she pointed out, referring to the centrist party led by Yair Lapid. But Scheindlin maintained that the former education minister has a strong and clear pool of potential voters, “which is anybody on the right who is discontent with Likud but is firmly right wing.”
Tal Schneider, the political correspondent for Times of Israel and a longtime political observer, predicted that Sa’ar would face an uphill battle to build support on the ground.
“It’s not easy, he needs a lot of money, a lot of resilience,” she said, since he lacks the infrastructure, donor rolls and mailing lists of established parties. The other parties “have done it three times already; they have practice.”
Schneider said she has “a feeling that the polls are hyped,” and Sa’ar could fall short of his professed goal, and potentially even walk back his vow not to join a coalition led by Netanyahu. “It all depends on the numbers,” she said. “After this year, I wouldn’t trust anyone who says they’ll stay out of the government.”
Sa’ar told JI that, regardless of politics, he will work to build strong ties with Diaspora Jewry.
“The most important thing for me is to say that I see all Jews in America and worldwide as our brothers,” he said. “I believe in the unity of the Jewish people as a value and also as strategic strength for the Jewish state. And I will work hard in order to have a good dialogue and a good relationship with all Jews from different segments in American society.”
Sa’ar was circumspect when asked about the hastily shelved plan to expand the area for non-Orthodox prayer at the Kotel, which has been a point of contention with Diaspora Jews since the initiative was discarded in 2017.
“It’s a very sensitive issue that the Israeli government — I was not a member of the government during the two different decisions that were made in that issue,” Sa’ar said. “I will take care of that issue very carefully, and I don’t want to say anything before I will promote this dialogue and get into this issue very seriously.”
New Hope’s decision to hire the founders of the Republican anti-Trump Lincoln Project made headlines around the world last month. Sa’ar defended the move as a perfectly legitimate one not tied to any specific political alignment.
“We took some American advisors; we took them for professional reasons,” he said. “It’s not connected to things they did for other clients in the past in their career. It is because we thought they can contribute professionally to our work today.”
“I am responsible for my campaign, and the things I say and we present in the campaign,” Sa’ar added. “I don’t want to say anything which is connected to American politics.”
Last month, Sa’ar told The Jerusalem Post that he does not believe the public responds well to negative attack ads. He has since released a series of videos painting his former Likud colleagues in a less-than-flattering light — using largely their own words. But Sa’ar said those ads “don’t have any connection to the Lincoln Project” — and he doesn’t view them as attack ads.
“We attacked a certain political discourse which we think is destructive and not uniting and not respectable in terms of how you treat your political rivals,” said Sa’ar of the ads. “This is something we want to change. If people don’t feel [comfortable] with what they saw in these ads, in terms of the language, and in terms of the discourse, they should ask themselves why they feel that way.”
Sa’ar said he was disturbed to witness the scenes of violence that occurred in the U.S. Capitol on January 6 — but he believes in the strength of both U.S. and Israeli democracy in the face of such challenges.
“We should never take for granted our democracy, and we must treat respectfully the democratic process,” he said. “I hope we won’t see similar things in Israel, but I’m sure that if we will see such things, we will know how to overcome them.”
Israeli democracy, he said, “has survived in a society that has confronted so many external threats. And our democracy was established in a country where the majority of the people came from non-democratic countries.” Despite those challenges, he added, “our democracy is very strong. We know how important it is to protect it and to preserve it, and that is what we’ll do.”
In conversation, Sa’ar is serious and determined, and careful to lay out his positions and policies as he sees them. But, as it turns out, he can also take a joke. The announcement last month of the name of his party, New Hope, triggered a series of memes poking fun at it sharing a name with the original “Star Wars” film.
Sa’ar said he chuckled at the jokes, but dashed rumors that there was any link between his party’s name and the film series.
“If I saw ‘Star Wars,’ it was so many years ago, so I cannot really deeply understand [the memes],” he joked. “We chose ‘New Hope’ for what it is: a new hope for our country; hope to come back to stability after four election campaigns within two years; a new hope for unity in our society.”