Gideon Sa'ar

Gideon Sa’ar, Benjamin Netanyahu’s Internal Antagonist

For fourteen years, Benjamin Netanyahu has led Israel’s conservative Likud party. Now, however, he faces a real challenger in Gideon Sa’ar, who could redefine Israel’s position in the Middle East.

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is one of the longest-serving leaders in the region who has, so far, defeated all opponents who have failed to form a government against him despite decreasing popularity.

His reign could come to an end, however, due to an internal leadership vote that will be held today. Back in October, Netanyahu announced that he sought to hold an internal leadership election, not anticipating he could be challenged for his position.

However, Gideon Sa’ar accepted the challenge, which led Netanyahu to cancel the election subsequently. It is reasonable to assume that Netanyahu was cognizant of a scenario that would have had him lose to Gideon. Two months later, Netanyahu will no longer be able to avoid the conflict with Sa’ar.

After two parliamentary elections within a year, after which Netanyahu failed to form a government twice in a row, Likud is holding a leadership election today, December 26. However, who is Gideon Sa’ar, the man who could end Netanyahu’s tenure? Furthermore, what are the implications for Israel?

First and foremost, the 52-year-old former Minister of the Interior and Education is a relatively unknown quantity on the international, less politically affine, stage. Unlike the astute and rhetorically gifted Netanyahu, who not only grew up in the US but studied at US universities, and obtained university degrees, Sa’ar has had little opportunities to present himself to the international media.

Nonetheless, Sa’ar has earned himself a reputation among astute observers and is a highly popular politician in Israel. In the Likud, Sa’ar has twice been the runner up to Netanyahu, who has had the bonus of being the country’s Prime Minister, in the past few years.

Moreover, Sa’ar is also popular outside the party: According to a recent survey, 33 percent of Israelis would like Sa’ar to become Netanyahu’s successor. A remarkable result, considering other candidates reach a maximum of seven percent in the same surveys. His popularity has surged so drastically that even media that is considered to be left-leaning cheer Sa’ar’s candidacy.

The latter is particularly surprising because, on several issues, Sa’ar has taken stances that are further to the right than Netanyahu’s. As a teenager, Sa’ar was already politically involved in the nationalist Techija movement, which opposed and protested the evacuation of Israeli settlements in Sinai as part of the peace treaty with Egypt.

Moreover, Sa’ar has described the two-state solution as a “non-helpful illusion” and continues to support annexation of the West Bank, while he promises the Palestinians at most limited Palestinian autonomy in a federation with Jordan.

Sa’ar has also positioned himself to the right of Netanyahu in domestic debates. He ordered the Minister of the Interior to close shops in Tel Aviv on the holy weekday Sabbath – as an expression of his ostentatious return to the Jewish faith, which is manifested in compliance with Jewish eating regulations and an intensive study of the scriptures. This adherence to principles explains its appeal to traditional right-wing voters.

His main advantage, however, seems to be his character, which even political opponents unanimously describe him as “extremely decent.” While Netanyahu has been accused of corruption in three cases and has had his fair share of somewhat controversial takes on Israel judiciary, the police, or the media, Sa’ar stands out for his moderate manner of expression and strong support for the Israeli rule of law.

However, for Sa’ar to utilize all the praise about his persona for political power, he will have to win the vote. He already took the first step when he emphasized that he can be the man who cannot only lead Likud but built bridges that can gap the rift within Israeli parliament.  A rift Netanyahu has evidentially failed to gap after two failed attempts to form a coalition because the opposition categorically rejects him.

So far, four Likud members of the Knesset have endorsed Sa’ar. Nonetheless, Netanyahu continues to command widespread support within Likud. However, Netanyahu appears to be concerned about the outcome tonight, which is the most reliable indication that Sa’ar has more than an outsider’s chance to overtake the party and potentially reshape Israel’s role in the region.