Dec 8, 2020 - World

Netanyahu's new challenger: Gideon Saar launches party to take on Likud

Saar in 2019. Photo: Amir Levy/Getty Images

A former cabinet minister from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party has announced that he's breaking away to challenge Netanyahu in Israel's next election.

Why it matters: The formation of a new right-wing party by Gideon Saar — a former education and interior minister under Netanyahu who challenged him for the Likud leadership last year — is bad news for Netanyahu with an election looming early next year.

What they're saying: In his speech tonight, Saar accused Netanyahu of creating a political crisis in Israel due to his corruption trial, and an economic crisis due to his handling of COVID-19.

  • He said Likud had turned into an empty vessel, serving only to ensure Netanyahu's legal and political survival.
  • “The party turned into a cult for one person. Netanyahu can’t give Israel the unity and stability it needs. The most important thing right now is to replace Netanyahu," Saar declared.

The other side: Likud attacked Saar after his announcement, claiming he's only leaving because his popularity is waning in internal Likud polls.

  • “Saar decided to leave the right wing and join the left. Like many others who left he too will be totally crushed in the election," the party said in a statement.  

Background: Saar resigned from the government and the Knesset six years ago over his bad relations with Netanyahu and his wife Sarah.

  • He later returned to politics and launched a leadership challenge against Netanyahu, ultimately winning just 27% of the vote to Netanyahu's 72%.
  • Netanyahu took revenge by declining to appoint him as a minister when the current government was formed.

The big picture: Saar is the latest in a long list of senior Likud members who have left the party in recent years after falling out with Netanyahu.

  • People close to Saar say his objective is to remove Netanyahu from office, and he won't bring his party into any Netanyahu-led government.
  • Saar’s move boosts the anti-Netanyahu bloc in the Israeli political system, but he'll need to convince voters to join him in abandoning Likud. If he does, his party could potentially block Netanyahu from forming the next government.

What’s next: It is still unclear what Saar’s party will look like. It could possibly include some members of Likud who will leave with him and also newcomers to politics like former IDF chief of staff Gadi Eizenkot.

  • Saar’s move could have a stabilizing effect on Israel’s dysfunctional power sharing government and convince Netanyahu he is better off by passing a budget and preventing a new elections.

State of play: Israel's coalition government is in the process of collapsing, with elections likely to take place in March. Polls had projected a potential right-wing bloc, led by Likud, to win a majority of seats.

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