Occupied Jerusalem: He looks more like an accountant than a political predator, but on Thursday Gideon Saar will challenge his former mentor Benjamin Netanyahu for the leadership of Israel’s ruling party.
Saar, 53, has been a senior figure in the right-wing Likud for a decade and served as a cabinet minister in successive Netanyahu governments.
He is widely seen as ideologically to the right of Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, but with a more collegiate style.
Having previously worked as a lawyer and journalist, he was brought into politics by Netanyahu in 1999, serving as cabinet secretary for the final few months of Netanyahu’s first government.
He was elected to the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, in 2003.
Saar excelled in the 2009 and 2013 Likud primaries, coming top of the list of candidates both times. As leader of the party, Netanyahu was not on that list.
But tension was growing between the men.
Netanyahu, 70, has consistently refused to name a successor to the party leadership and has sought to weaken colleagues perceived as potential challengers.
Saar has repeatedly accused his former mentor of sidelining him.
In September 2014, while serving as interior minister under Netanyahu, he abruptly announced he would “take a break” from politics to spend more time with his family.
He gave up his Knesset seat two months later but remained a Likud party member.
Saar is married to prominent Israeli TV news anchor Geula Even, with whom he has two young children. They also each have children from previous marriages.
Throughout his time out of the spotlight, Saar was widely considered the largest threat to Netanyahu from inside Likud.
In April 2017, he announced his return to politics.
“I took a break to be with the family and deal with other challenges,” he said. “It was the best, most comfortable, most quiet time.”
“But even good things have an end.”
After winning fourth place in a February 2019 primary, he was returned to the Knesset in general elections in April and September, although the results of those national polls did not allow Likud or its centrist opponents to form a government.
A third national election in less than a year is to be held on March 2, with the winner of Thursday’s primary set to lead Likud into those polls.
Last year Netanyahu, in a clear reference to his former protege, said “a former Likud minister has been holding discussions with the coalition and concocted a subversive plot” to oust him.
Although he did not explicitly name him, Saar publicly denied the charge.
Then in October, after Netanyahu floated the prospect of a leadership primary within Likud, Saar nailed his flag firmly to the mast with a two-word tweet.
“I’m ready,” he wrote.
The idea of holding a primary was shelved until earlier this month when a vote was set for December 26.
Saar officially launched his campaign earlier this month, warning that a third Netanyahu failure to form a government could send Likud into opposition.
“If we do not make a change, we are getting close to a left-wing government,” he warned.
“If you believe the Likud and its path should lead the state of Israel, vote for me,” he added, arguing he had the “knowledge and experience... to lead Israel into the next decade.”
The challenger is seen as more restrained in style than Netanyahu.
“He is not so negative and brutal,” said Gideon Rahat, a political science professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “He is more of a gentleman.”
“The second difference is there are no corruption allegations” against him, he told AFP.
Israel’s attorney general last month charged Netanyahu with bribery, fraud and breach of trust. He denies all wrongdoing, blaming a witch-hunt.
Under Israeli law, Netanyahu would not have to resign as prime minister unless convicted with all appeals exhausted.
Favours annexation of Israeli colonies
Saar has called for legislation to restrain the Supreme Court in its rulings on constitutional issues and he favours annexing Israeli colonies in the occupied Palestinian territories.
“He is trying to outflank the prime minister from the right,” said Ofer Zalzberg, senior Middle East analyst for the International Crisis Group.
Recent polls have suggested that if Saar were to lead the Likud the party might have fewer seats but the overall right-wing bloc in parliament might increase in size.
“Gideon Saar can actually build the next coalition,” said Sharren Haskel, one of the few Likud lawmakers to publicly announce their support for him.
Saar has challenged Netanyahu to hold a debate on policy, but the premier has so far not responded.