Israel’s Gideon Saar challenges lengthy Netanyahu Likud rule

In this Thursday, Oct. 3, 2019 photo, Gideon Saar, attends the swearing-in of the new Israeli parliament in Jerusalem. With a simple tweet, Gideon Saar did what no Israeli politician from the ruling Likud party has done in more than a decade — openly challenge Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The brazen move against the long-serving Israeli leader has solidly positioned the 52-year-old Saar as the leading candidate to replace Netanyahu, who is fighting for his survival amid a pending corruption indictment and post-election political paralysis. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

JERUSALEM (Rahnuma): With a simple tweet, Gideon Saar did what no Israeli politician from the ruling conservative party has done in more than a decade openly challenge its chief, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The brazen move against the long-serving Israeli leader has solidly positioned the 52-year-old Saar as the Likud party’s leading candidate to replace Netanyahu, who is fighting for his survival amid a pending corruption indictment and post-election political paralysis.

A former aide and senior Cabinet minister under Netanyahu, Saar has long been considered a rising star in Likud and one of the lone independent voices in a party that has, in general, blindly followed its leader.

But that has begun to change. Netanyahu failed in two elections this year to capture a parliamentary majority, and the possibility of a criminal indictment in the coming weeks has hindered his efforts to head a coalition government. Seeking to solidify his status, the premier last week floated the prospect of a snap internal leadership primary in which he expected Likud to endorse him. But he quickly backed down after a two-word Twitter response from Saar: “I’m ready.”

It was a risky maneuver in a party that fiercely values loyalty and has had only had four leaders in its 70-plus-year history. Saar followed it up with a more detailed tweet clarifying that he was not out to topple the prime minister, as Netanyahu has long claimed. Still, Saar left no doubt about his ultimate objective.

“No one is denying the prime minister’s role as chairman of the Likud,” Saar wrote on Twitter. “When there is a race for leadership of the party — as the prime minister himself initiated a few days ago — I will run.”

For Saar, it was a move long in the making. A former lawyer and journalist, he was first brought into politics 20 years ago by Netanyahu, who made him his Cabinet secretary during his first term in office.

Saar then established himself as a staunch nationalist who opposed Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and resisted the prospect of a Palestinian state. He quickly rose in the Likud ranks, twice finishing first in internal elections for its parliamentary list and enjoying successful stints as education minister and interior minister after Netanyahu returned to power in 2009.

But as with others in Likud who saw their popularity rise, he too began to be perceived by Netanyahu as a threat. Their falling out was capped by Saar’s active role in getting Netanyahu’s nemesis Reuven Rivlin elected president, over the prime minister’s objections.

With his advancement stunted, Saar abruptly quit politics in 2014 to spend more time with his new wife, Israeli TV anchor Geula Even, and their young children.

He made his comeback this year, chosen by Likud members for a senior position on the party’s list of candidates in parliamentary elections. While campaigning hard for Likud, Saar has been its only top official to occasionally flaunt Netanyahu — resisting calls to legislate immunity for the prime minister and attending a media conference Netanyahu had called to boycott.

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