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Q&A

Gideon Sa’ar: ‘No practical value’ in push for PA to control Gaza

In an interview with JI, Sa’ar, a member of Israel’s war cabinet, says ‘it would be arrogant to decide who will rule there.’

National Unity Party

MK Gideon Sa'ar speaks at National Unity party conference, September, 2023.

Just a few months ago, Gideon Sa’ar was a prominent right-wing critic of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset. 

For years, Sa’ar was considered the front-runner to be Likud’s next leader. Yet, after he ran against Netanyahu in a party primary in 2019 – after Netanyahu failed to form a coalition twice in one year – the rupture between them widened. Sa’ar left with four other Likud lawmakers to form his own party that got into the Knesset in 2021, running a year later as part of Benny Gantz’s National Unity list.

But wartime politics make for strange bedfellows, and Sa’ar is in a position that was once familiar to him: a member of Netanyahu’s security cabinet. Now, he says that the differences between him and the other members of the coalition do not eclipse the need for national unity, “an important element of our power during this war,” Sa’ar told Jewish Insider this week.

A former cabinet member from Likud’s right flank, Sa’ar, who was behind some of the right’s early judicial reform efforts, had years earlier resigned as party whip over the 2005 Gaza disengagement. 

Now, as part of the emergency government formed after Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, Sa’ar has kept up his conservative positions, and repeatedly told Jewish Insider that Israel needs to see the world as it is, not as it or its allies like the U.S. want it to be.

“The most important thing is first of all to understand what stands before us, and not be fooled by delusions. That is the condition for acting in the way we need to act,” Sa’ar said, applying his reasoning to Hamas, Hezbollah, the Palestinian Authority, Iran – and even Russia.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Jewish Insider: We’re speaking at a time of increased U.S. pressure for Israel to curb the war effort and increase humanitarian aid – how will Israel handle it?

Gideon Sa’ar: We will handle it because we have no other choice.

JI: Then what is the proper balance between Israel’s war aims and what our most important supporter and ally wants from Israel?

GS: The answer is in the question. We cannot compromise on reaching the goals of the war as the cabinet defined them. At the same time, you can give a humanitarian response that comes not just from the fact that our allies or friendly countries are telling us to do it. It also comes from our need to do it.

It’s a question of how much, the necessary amount. That is a topic of discussion. We have to make our own decisions, like any sovereign state.

JI: One of the major questions Israel gets from Western allies is what will happen in Gaza on the day after the war. The Biden administration wants a major role for the Palestinian Authority. What is Israel’s position?

GS: Notice that they’re not talking about Israel’s strategic position, under general assault by all of the jihadist forces throughout the Middle East with Iran guiding them, and the significance of that. They’re not talking about the significance of Russia backing them, which we see openly. I am not taking the strategic questions [on the future of Gaza] lightly, but I think that there are much more dramatic questions for Israel in the coming years, not just in the coming days.

As for the day after [the war] in Gaza, beyond the problems of the Palestinian Authority paying terrorists and families of terrorists for attacks against Israelis, beyond the systemic incitement in its schoolbooks and media, we need to understand that the PA doesn’t have the practical capability to control Gaza on the day after the war.

It doesn’t even control the territory that it’s supposed to control, like Jenin and Tulkarem. We saw the execution, which happened in public and lasted a long time. Hamas hanged men on electrical poles because they claimed they collaborated with Israel. It happened completely undisturbed. It’s clear that the PA does not control the territory under their authority.

They’re also corrupt and not accepted by the public. 

I see the whole discussion as theoretical. It has no practical value.

JI: Someone will have to control Gaza after the war. Will it be moderate Arab states?

GS: I think it would be arrogant to decide who will rule there. We have to stand up for our principles, that it must be people who are not connected to terror and incitement. If people meet that criteria, I don’t have a preference for this or that person. We must stand up for those principles.

I am very aware of the history of Gaza and that it is a very challenging goal, but if we want change, we have to ensure that the people who take responsibility [for Gaza] are not connected to terror and incitement.

JI: Do you think Israel should have announced publicly that it wants to assassinate the heads of Hamas? Does that not take away an important element of surprise?

GS: It’s true that in war, it’s better to act, there is no need to speak too much. But whoever thinks that the heads of Hamas needed our statements in order to hide – they knew what they did on Oct. 7 and what it means. They built the whole underground system in Gaza for scenarios like this, even before recent events.

JI: Could there be another pause in fighting to get more of the hostages out?

GS: We have a commitment to bringing back the hostages, and we have to do what we can to advance the cause through different channels. There is also great importance in continuity in the war.

It would be wise, under these complex circumstances, not to corner ourselves with declarations. This is a complicated event, and if there are realistic possibilities, we will have to weigh them.

I certainly must say that I don’t see it happening now. 

JI: What do you think about the argument that Israel lost momentum in the war because of the week-long pause?

GS: There are also arguments that it helped us. It doesn’t go one way. I think we did the right thing because we have a deep commitment to rescuing our hostages. In this case, it was women and children who were kidnapped to Gaza, and I think the decision was the right one. I voted for it and I think it was the right thing.

JI: You mentioned Russia earlier – Israeli cabinet ministers usually avoid criticizing Russia. What do you think Israel’s approach should be?

GS: We need to judge them by their actions. The fact that Russia decided to practically express support for Hamas, including hosting a Hamas delegation during the war, after what happened on Oct. 7, shows that they chose a side. 

It doesn’t surprise me because I saw in the past nearly two years, since the war in Ukraine started in February 2022, that Russia-Iran relations were growing closer. Iran aided Russia in several ways, including with weapons systems, intelligence and directly in the war itself. I didn’t think that aid would go one way.

I said those things when I was chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Subcommittee on Foreign Policy [in 2019-2020], and I think that we see it openly in the war. We don’t need to cover it up.

JI: Does this threaten the deconfliction mechanism between Israel and Russia so that Israel can strike Iranian targets in Syria? Will the strikes be able to continue?

GS: We can continue. Israel has to do what is necessary for its security. We can take several factors into account and still act for our security. 

The most important thing is first of all to understand what stands before us, and not be fooled by delusions. That is the condition for acting in the way we need to act.

JI: There seems to be pretty broad agreement that Israel had misjudged Hamas before this war. Could it be that Israel is falling into the same trap with Hezbollah, thinking that it can deter them?

GS: Israel’s security policy in the past was mistaken about Gaza and the north, and we paid a price for it. Just because there were mistakes does not mean we have to act now on all fronts and against all threats at the same time. That is not the necessary conclusion.

In the theory of war, there is a principle called “concentration of force.” We decided to concentrate our forces on the southern front to defeat the enemy. It does not mean that we will not have to deal with a challenge on the northern border.

We are ready on the northern border. There is fighting; we respond to the attacks on us, but we are not letting it sway us from the decision to focus our efforts on Gaza. We will have to act in the appropriate way at the right time. That takes judgment.

Eight or nine years ago, I wrote a long article about the need for a preventative strike against Hezbollah. I thought, at the time, that with Hezbollah busy together with Iran and Russia in the Syrian civil war to preserve the Assad regime, it would be a good time to strike at its precision weapons factory, which was in its infancy.

In strategy, there are opportunities and different situations, and we have to use our judgment.

However, we can’t assume that a growing threat against us will not be realized. We cannot wait for it to happen. At this moment, whatever happens in the north, we won’t be surprised. We are totally ready.

JI: Israel thought it was protected from Hamas in Gaza, yet there were so many warnings about Gaza, from IDF lookouts and intelligence officers. How did Israel miss them?

GS: That will be investigated after the war. Clearly there was a massive failure. But right now our priority is to succeed in the war, and the time will come after for all these things to be checked in depth.

JI: The agreement Netanyahu and Gantz signed to form an emergency government said the coalition will only deal with war-related issues, but the coalition is putting forward unrelated budgetary items. What is the National Unity list going to do about it?

GS: I think the adjusted budget that [Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich] submitted is wrong, and we expressed that by voting against it in the cabinet and the Knesset.

I don’t think that the differences on this topic would justify breaking the national unity government in a time of war. Therefore, we acted and voted according to what we believe, but I do not think this requires us to break up the national unity that is an important element of our power during this war.

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