When Gideon Sa’ar, Israel’s interior minister, and a leading figure in the governing center-right Likud (הַלִּכּוּד), announced his sudden resignation on September 17, it set the tongues of Israeli pundits wagging.
Why would one of the most ambitious Likudniks leave government at a time when prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s politically unpopularity seems to be growing? Especially as one of the leading contenders to succeed Netanyahu as Likud’s leader.
A sex scandal was imminent, some said.
No, Sa’ar would be forming a new party with former communications minister Moshe Kahlon, others said. (Though it wasn’t the reasons for Sa’ar’s resignation, it’s not an impossibility in the future.)
But if you take Sa’ar (pictured above, left, with Netanyahu) at his word, he simply wanted to take a breather from politics and spend more time with his child David, who was born just nine months ago. He’s also admitted that a growing rift with Netanyahu, who has been in power since 2009, contributed to his decision to step back from the daily grind.
Sa’ar helped deliver the Israeli president to Likud’s Reuven Rivlin in June. Though it’s a largely ceremonial office, Netanyahu tried (and failed) to secure the office for a more reliable ally than Rivlin, going so far as to try to postpone the vote by Israel’s parliament, the Knesset (הַכְּנֶסֶת). Sa’ar backed Rivlin from the outset, and he vocally opposed Netanyahu’s increasingly desperate attempts to find a replacement or delay the vote.
But Sa’ar, who served as education minister from 2009 to 2013 in the previous Netanyahu government before his elevation to the interior ministry, is leaving office at a smart time.
With Netanyahu hoping to schedule Likud primaries soon and head shortly thereafter into fresh elections next year, it’s almost certain that neither Sa’ar nor Kahlon nor anyone else could mount a credible challenge to a seasoned leader fresh out of a military action against Gaza. But Netanyahu will struggle to hold the votes of a hardened right-wing electorate. Its voters are now more excited by Netanyahu’s one-time chief of staff, Naftali Bennett, now the leader of the Bayit Yehudi (הבית היהודי, ‘The Jewish Home’). Bennett routinely criticized Netanyahu’s handling of the Gaza conflict, calling for a harder line against Hamas, even though he currently serves as economy minister in the Netanyahu-led coalition government.
One recent October poll gives Likud 27 seats in the 120-member Knesset, and puts Bayit Yehudi in second place with 18 seats, and the center-left Labor Party (מפלגת העבודה הישראלית) with 16 under former welfare minister Isaac Herzog, who assumed the leadership last November.
Finance minister (and former television anchorman) Yair Lapid’s party, Yesh Atid (יֵשׁ עָתִיד, ‘There is a Future’) would fall back to just 10 seats, and one-time Likud electoral coalition partner, the conservative, nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu (יִשְׂרָאֵל בֵּיתֵנוּ, ‘Israel is Our Home’) of foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman would win just nine, tied with the left-wing Zionist Meretz (מֶרֶצ).
Sa’ar, for his part, sniped on the sidelines of the Gaza war as well, blaming Netanyahu for not trying to topple Hamas, and ruling out a separate Palestinian state. Despite his differences over Rivlin and over Gaza, Sa’ar never clashed with Netanyahu over significant policy disagreements. Moreover, as education minister, he could hardly be said to play a role in Israeli-Palestinian affairs — he played only a minor one as interior minister.
But after nearly two terms in office, Sa’ar might be wise to leave now. It gives him the flexibility to distance himself from the current government, to return late if, for example, Netanyahu loses the next election, or if Netanyahu wins and tries to hold on for a fourth consecutive term. Netanyahu himself, like the late Ariel Sharon before him, spent time in the political wilderness after his own failed premiership from 1996 to 1999. So did Bennett, who left Netanyahu to promote the interests of West Bank settlers before returning to lead Bayit Yehudi into the January 2013 elections.
With a young new son and a glamorous wife in Channel 1 anchorwoman Geula Even, Sa’ar won’t soon be forgotten. If an opening arises in the Likud leadership for the foreseeable future, Sa’ar would instantly become a leading contender, even though (or maybe especially because) he will now be outside of government.