It is a better day than average when a Likud stalwart abandons ship, portraying the party as sycophant mafia wholly dedicated to the cult of a criminal defendant.
Gideon Sa’ar was no doubt a little slow: it needed Benjamin Netanyahu to freeze him out of the Cabinet for this perspicacity to flower. But his resignation from the Knesset is a case of better late than never, and reasonable Israelis can be forgiven for wishing Sa’ar well.
Remember, please, however: Sa’ar is not the answer to what plagues Israel. In declaring a run for prime minister, he essentially proposed that what plagues Israel is Netanyahu’s comportment. It is true, to a degree: no one who has lived through the Donald Trump presidency will disrespect toxicity again. But what is actually killing Israel is the right-wing policies that Sa’ar does not disavow.
Israel needs to find a way to avoid becoming a binational state, an outcome that the right-wing’s suicidal Jewish West Bank settlement project is inadvertently advancing by the day – by not realizing the Palestinians cannot and should not be forever subjugated.
On this issue Sa’ar may be more reliably right-wing than the slippery Netanyahu. He railed against Ariel Sharon’s 2005 pullout from Gaza. As education minister a decade ago he dragged Jewish schoolchildren to tours of the Jewish enclave in Hebron, where a few dozen radical families have taken over the center of downtown and brought tremendous dysfunction and mayhem to much of a major Arab town. In his failed 2019 primary bid against Netanyahu, Sa’ar challenged the premier from the right and called the two-state solution an “illusion.”
Indeed, Sa’ar has never shown an understanding that the occupation is bad for Israel or manifested anything but indifference to the denial to millions of voting rights for the government that rules them.
Israel also needs to find a way to rejigger its relations with the ultra-Orthodox minority, whose astounding birthrates, dependence on state handouts, low participation in the workforce, evasion of the military, imposition of religion and refusal to teach most of its young marketable skills is threatening to bring down the house, on everyone, for real.
Sa’ar shows no evidence that he understands this either. Instead, he boasts of closeness to the cynical Haredi parties (the ones that consider offering a Knesset place to women to be absurd). To advance this narrative, he has claimed to be growing closer to a religious lifestyle (which few believe). To grease the wheels of future machination, he did his best, as interior minister, to impede commerce in secular areas on the Sabbath.
Sa’ar has also shown little understanding that the one-fifth of Israelis who are Arabs cannot forever be banished from the political game. He did not complain at Netanyahu’s rants against Israel’s Arab citizens over the years and is reportedly courting for his new outfit the electoral pickpockets Zvi Hauser and Yoaz Hendel, the two Blue and White Knesset members who refused to allow Benny Gantz to become prime minister after the last election because it meant relying on the votes of Arabs.
All this underscores a paradox of current Israeli politics: Netanyahu’s corruption scandals, mendacity and authoritarianism make him something of an asset to opponents of his policies — because some of his less unethical ideological fellow travelers cannot stand him.
The coming days’ polls will show what Sa’ar’s plan to set up a new center-right party to challenge Netanyahu means to Israel’s fractured political landscape.
By now, a good part of the population has actually been successfully gaslighted by Netanyahu into such a state of credulous immaturity as to believe his bribery trial is a deep-state conspiracy (and perhaps that up is down and that two plus two is a goldfish).
Sa’ar is an establishment type who probably genuinely opposes the “reforms” with which Netanyahu aims to refashion Israel into a sort of Jewish Turkey. And he will probably right-size Naftali Bennett, the nationalist extremist who lately has ballooned in the polls by expertly masquerading as a pandemic expert. Ideally, though, he would actually take votes from the right as a whole and deliver them to what was once the left but can now be called the anti-Netanyahu camp.
There is some precedent for this. Avigdor Liberman seems to be a credible part of that camp at present despite having been in the right-wing bloc for years. But Liberman has a genuine ideological axe to grind: he may project anti-Arab racism, but seems to comprehend the demographics like a person who knows math, and his mainly Russian-speaking base skews secular, has suffered at Haredi hands, and can stomach it no more.
But it is not difficult to envision Saar making future excuses for backing Netanyahu for favors grand enough (yes, Gantz pitifully did the same, but only after he mistakenly felt he had no choice). After all, Sa’ar supported Likud and ran on its list earlier this year, when every child knew victory (which proved elusive) meant immunity for Netanyahu. And certainly Sa’ar is a prime candidate to support another abysmal rightist government once Netanyahu is gone.
Sa’ar may end up more akin to poor Moshe Kahlon. Tiring of Netanyahu, he too left Likud and formed a “centrist” party to run in 2015. He managed to attract a few political saps to join him, drew tens of thousands of votes from leftist suckers, and then dutifully handed that dowry to Netanyahu in exchange for the finance ministry. When the suckers abandoned him, it soon led to inglorious retirement.
I met with Sa’ar 18 years ago in his office when I was the chairman of the Foreign Press Association and he was Ariel Sharon’s youthful cabinet secretary. The government had just pulled the press cards of Palestinians working for the foreign press, which did not seem so democratic and made things rather difficult (as the Shin Bet tends to arrest journalists in the territories who cannot produce them).
Sa’ar presented as the very picture of the sympathetic bureaucrat: well-groomed and bespectacled, moderate in his gestures and soft-spoken to a fault. Unlike another Likudnik younger than Sharon, he certainly projected no potential to ever become a grievance-peddling charlatan milking state coffers dry and agitating like mad against the rule of law.
He also did not lift a finger to do the right thing about the press accreditations. All 10 fingers clutched firmly his well-padded leather seat.