Over the past two months the left-wing and centrist “anyone but Netanyahu” coalition has had a new face: that of Gideon Sa’ar, senior Likudnik and longtime rival of the prime minister, who may end up challenging Bibi for the party throne should Likud hold primaries. For many, Sa’ar is the antithesis to Netanyahu: he has a good relationship with the media, a statesmanlike demeanor, and keeps things moving in the face of Netanyahu’s antics.
But before heaving a sigh of relief, it’s worth revisiting some of his policies and public statements as a minister in order to gauge where he might lead Israel if elected prime minister.
Sa’ar, 52, has been a right-wing ideologue since his days as a youth in Tehiya, an ultranationalist party that protested against the 1982 evacuation of Israeli settlements in the Sinai following the Camp David Accords. He is diligently opposed to a Palestinian state and supports annexation of the West Bank — especially Area C and the existing settlements, arguing a few years ago that such a move needs to be “official Likud policy,” and that the party needed to “formally abandon the idea of two states.”
Sa’ar has since clarified his intention to take practical steps toward realizing Israeli sovereignty in the occupied territories, including increased settlement-building. He also believes, according to a statement he made three years ago, that “the most urgent and important national task is ensuring a Jewish majority in united Jerusalem,” adding that the construction of Jewish settlements throughout the city was “insufficient.”
The media-savvy, secular, Ashkenazi man from Tel Aviv
As Education Minister, from 2009-2013, Sa’ar introduced his own version of Zionism into the curriculum, including classes on Jewish heritage and tours to Hebron. He also oversaw personnel changes in the ministry’s civics departments, bringing in four members of the Institute for Zionist Strategies, an ideological think tank.
Professor Yuli Tamir, a former Labor politician and Sa’ar’s predecessor as education minister, acknowledges that civics education in Israel has deteriorated since her tenure. Nonetheless, she praises Sa’ar himself, saying that the ministers who succeeded him “brought down the whole system.” While she had disagreements with Sa’ar, she continues, “he was very professional. After the social justice protests [of 2011], he spearheaded a reform that brought in free education from the age of three.”
“Every minister brings their own worldview into the system,” Tamir continues. “I brought mine and he brought his. We’re trying to make an impact. I didn’t always like what he did, but unlike Naftali Bennett [education minister from 2015-2019], he acted reasonably.”
Tamir suggests that those who prefer Sa’ar over Netanyahu are perhaps, like her, missing respectable discourse. “Sa’ar is very right-wing, but doesn’t need everyone to agree with him,” she continues. “We had many disputes, but he always went by the book — unlike Bibi, who has broken the rules completely. That’s the impression — not that Sa’ar is a leftist, but that he’s someone who plays by the rules.”
Professor Yossi Dahan, a founder of the left-wing Israeli website Haokets and an expert on education and social justice, rejects Tamir’s assessment. “Sa’ar doesn’t play according to democratic rules, unless they’re the rules of the majority,” he says. “He is one of [far-right Zionist group] Im Tirtzu’s most enthusiastic supporters, so I don’t understand how he can be a democrat. He has never condemned the organization, which a judge ruled could legally be termed a fascist group,” Dahan continues. “When has he ever criticized the right as it flouts the law and violates human rights? Being democratic includes protecting these rights.”
Dahan argues that the left’s softening toward Sa’ar stems from their social status — secular, Ashkenazi, Tel Aviv residents who are “excited mostly because he closely resembles them. He’s not Miri Regev or Bezalel Smotrich.”
Sa’ar is also known to be media-friendly, and enjoys personal relationships with several high-profile journalists at newspapers and television channels across the political spectrum.
“He has a deep understanding of the media environment, from when he briefly worked as a journalist and commentator,” says Ronit Vardi, a journalist and political commentator.
If Netanyahu’s media strategy is aggressive and top-down — launching the far-right Channel 20, allegedly intervening in the reporting of Israel Hayom and the Walla! news website, and constant unwillingness to be interviewed — Sa’ar, by contrast, has managed to appease political reporters from the left and the right without taming his opinions.
“Background conversations with Gideon Sa’ar are always excellent,” Vardi says. “Journalists get a lot of rich material out of him — and his manipulation of them is more fruitful, too.”
Continuing the war on asylum seekers
An example of this manipulation is Sa’ar’s contradictory record regarding asylum seekers in Israel while he served as interior minister from 2013-2014. On the one hand, he granted one high-profile asylum seeker permission to remain in Israel, an act that seemed to gesture to leaders of the struggle that he was attentive to their issues. On the other, he maintained a belligerent policy that was responsible for establishing the Holot detention camp in the middle of the southern Israeli desert. Thousands of African asylum seekers were imprisoned there — people to whom the media did not grant names or faces.
As interior minister, Sa’ar continued to promote government decisions made during the tenure of Eli Yishai (Shas party) as interior minister. Holot, for example, was not Sa’ar’s brainchild but rather part of a legal back-and-forth between the Supreme Court and the government. But unlike current interior minister Aryeh Deri, also of Shas, Sa’ar used the war on asylum seekers as a political tool and took pride in doing so, according to Yael Agor Orgel, a board member of the Jerusalem African Community Center. “Deri is more inclined than Sa’ar to see [asylum seekers] as human beings,” she says.
Beyond formally implementing previous government decisions, Sa’ar also introduced one of the policies that has harmed asylum seekers the most — reducing the number of sites where they could apply to be recognized as refugees, and isolating them from other bureaucratic processes.
“His intent was to make life difficult for them,” says Agor Orgel. “Instead of spending two hours in the morning [to apply for services] they would have to go for an entire day and spend hours queueing. Now there is a department that is off-limits to anyone who isn’t an asylum seeker, and that only deals with them. There, they are subjected to humiliating, disgraceful, and verbally violent treatment.”
Some say that the preference for Sa’ar over Netanyahu is akin to how people approach Ayelet Shaked in the same regard: both are from Tel Aviv and of the right socioeconomic class and color. But social dynamics aside, it is difficult to ignore the unusual level of respect Sa’ar has won from his political rivals.
This is not only a matter of familiarity, but also because he is the kind of politician who can walk the walk, not just talk the talk. Sa’ar has won plaudits for not hiding behind empty words; he states his political intentions openly, and does all he can to advance them — whether it’s expanding Israeli territory, strengthening Jewish identity, riding roughshod over Palestinian rights, or acting forcefully against any resistance.
A version of this article was originally published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.