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Likud MK Saar quits the party

What happened: Gideon Saar has resigned from the Knesset after announcing last night he was leaving the Likud to start a new right-wing party and run for the next prime minister against Benjamin Netanyahu.

  • At his press conference last night Saar said: “A year ago, I tried to make a change. I ran against Netanyahu for Likud leadership and I have accepted the decision of Likud constituents. However, everything that has happened in the last year has made me realise a change in the country’s leadership was necessary.”
  • “Likud was my political home, but it has been changing dramatically and fast. The movement has become a tool to serve the interests of the man standing at its helm, including those pertaining to his criminal trial… loyalty to Likud’s way, values and ideals have been replaced by flattery and platitudes that border a cult of personality of a man, flesh and blood… I can no longer support a government headed by Netanyahu, I can no longer be member of a Likud headed by him. I say this with much regret, as someone who saw him as the right leader to lead the country for many years and served in senior positions in his governments.”
  • “Today, Israel needs unity and stability, and Netanyahu can and will no longer be able to give it either. Today, the order of the day to replace the Netanyahu regime – the longest-serving in the country’s history.”
  • The Likud released a statement in response, “Saar was beaten and then broke all his promises by abandoning Likud just as Prime Minister Netanyahu secured millions of vaccines to Israeli citizens, reducing morbidity and mortality to one of the lowest levels in the world and brought historic peace agreements.”
  • Various Likud ministers attacked his decision and claimed it was due to his falling popularity within the grassroots of the movement.

Context: His announcement coincides with the bill to dissolve parliament currently being prepared by the House Committee before its first reading.

  • Saar’s decision follows numerous high profile Likud figures who have left the party under Netanyahu’s leadership over the years. This includes Dan Meridor, Ron Milo, Yitzhak Mordechai in the 1990s. In recent years, Moshe Yaalon and Moshe Kahlon both left and formed their own parties. Other leading politicians including Naftali Bennett, Ayelet Shaked and Avigdor Lieberman have all worked for Netanyahu in the past.
  • In December 2019 Saar competed against Netanyahu for the leadership of the Likud, which Netanyahu won 72.5 per cent vs 27.5 per cent. Saar remained popular in the Likud and placed fourth in the party’s primary, but he was overlooked for a ministerial position in the current government. In the past he has served as minister for education and interior under Netanyahu. He took a break from politics from 2014-17.
  • Other Likud figures are expected to join Saar. He has reportedly asked MK Yifat Shasha-Biton, the Chair of the Knesset’s Coronavirus Committee, and former MK and Mayor of Ramat Gan Carmel Shama Hacohen to join his new party. Israeli media has speculated that Likud MKs Michal Shir and Sharren Haskel could also make the switch.
  • The announcement adds to the speculation as to whether former IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot will enter politics. Eisenkot is thought to favour joining a centre-right party, and has not ruled out the Likud, though he would not join Netanyahu.
  • Although Saar is not religious, he has very close relations with the leaders of the ultra-Orthodox parties. Political commentators have suggested that they would have no problem joining a government led by Saar.
  • A new poll by Radio 103 FM shows that Saar’s new party would gain 17 seats. The poll shows the Likud remaining on top with 25 seats, followed by Yamina on 19, Saar on 17, Yesh Atid on 14, Arab Joint list on 11, Shas on 9, UTJ on 7, Yisrael Beiteinu on 7, Blue and White on 6, and Meretz on 5.

Looking ahead: MKs Zvi Hauser and Yoaz Hendel (also former Netanyahu staffers) from Derech Eretz, which is part of the Blue and White coalition, are expected to announce that they are joining the new party led by Saar.

  • Eisenkot has said he would not make any decisions until the situation becomes clearer and whether the Knesset dissolves.
  • Ironically, Saar’s announcement could provide the impetus for the Likud and Blue and White to avoid early elections. Netanyahu could now be more inclined to pass a budget for 2021 and honour the rotation agreement with Blue and White.

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