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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.

Go deeper

Jan 27, 2021 - World

Israel's COVID crisis deepens even as the vaccination rate climbs

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish protesters clash with security forces over lockdown enforcement Photo: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had hoped to declare victory over the pandemic before the elections on March 23, but new fast-spreading variants of COVID-19 have dashed those hopes.

Why it matters: Netanyahu's main political vulnerability is his handling of the pandemic. He has acknowledged that his poll numbers will be directly connected to the rates of vaccinations, new infections and deaths, as well as his ability to reopen the economy.

8 mins ago - World

Scoop: Israel's "top priority" mission to discredit UN probe

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett addresses the UN. Photo: John Minchillo/Pool via Getty

Israel is planning a campaign to discredit a UN commission formed to investigate the violence in Gaza last May and the root causes of the protracted conflict in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, according to an Israeli Foreign Ministry cable seen by Axios.

Why it matters: Israeli officials say they are highly concerned that the commission’s report will refer to Israel as an "Apartheid state" and that its findings could damage Israel's reputation, particularly among progressives in the West. The report is expected in June.

Updated 9 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Liberal Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer to retire: reports

Justice Stephen Breyer. Photo: MANDEL NGAN / AFP via Getty Images

Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer will retire, NBC news first reported and multiple outlets confirmed on Wednesday, giving President Biden his first — and maybe only — chance to put a stamp on the high court.

What’s next: Appointing a new Supreme Court justice will be one of the longest-lasting pieces of Biden’s legacy — and could give Democrats a jolt of energy ahead of next year's midterms.