Netanyahu Challenger Pledges Change 01/15 06:58
TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's top
challenger in upcoming elections is promising a tough line toward Iran and the
Palestinians, yet expressed confidence he has the tools to avoid what appears
to be a collision course with the incoming Biden administration.
In an interview, Gideon Saar voiced harsh criticism of Netanyahu, accusing
the prime minister of turning the ruling Likud party into a "cult of
personality" as he faces a corruption trial. While welcoming President Donald
Trump's affinity for Israel, he acknowledged that Netanyahu's close ties with
the divisive U.S. president had alienated many Democrats and vowed to restore
traditional bipartisan support for Israel.
"I think I am in a better position than the prime minister to have an
effective and true dialogue with President-elect (Joe) Biden and his
administration," he told The Associated Press.
That could be critical given the deep differences between Israel and Biden,
who plans to return to the Iranian nuclear deal and adopt a more balanced
approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Saar, who defected from Netanyahu's ruling Likud party last month, shares
the prime minister's hard-line nationalistic ideology. He is a strong proponent
of West Bank settlements, rejects the idea of a construction freeze and favors
the eventual annexation of the settlements. He said he would never agree to an
independent Palestinian state that includes the removal of settlements.
"I oppose a Palestinian state in the heart of our homeland," he said. "I
think it will not bring peace and it will undermine stability and security in
These positions will put him at odds with Biden, who --- like many of his
predecessors --- opposes settlement construction and favors a two-state
solution between Israel and the Palestinians. Saar seems to be counting on his
reputation as a bridge builder to massage the inevitable disagreements likely
His demeanor and style are starkly different from Netanyahu's. While
Netanyahu is a firebrand orator, Saar, a lawyer by training, speaks
methodically, often pausing to find the right word. Where Netanyahu has gained
a reputation for an extravagant lifestyle, Saar conducted Thursday's interview
in the book-lined living room of his high-rise apartment in an upscale Tel Aviv
neighborhood. With four children living at home, he lamented the challenges,
including Zoom lessons, of raising a blended family during the pandemic.
Saar, 54, entered Israeli politics in 1999 as Cabinet secretary during
Netanyahu's first term. He held key senior Cabinet posts after Netanyahu
returned to power in 2009.
But as with many other fast-rising Likud figures, he eventually had a
falling out with Netanyahu. Saar took a break from politics in 2014 to spend
time with his new wife, TV anchor Geula Even, and their children.
He returned in 2019 but never seemed to repair his ties with Netanyahu.
Later that year, Netanyahu trounced him in a party leadership vote, confining
Saar to the backbenches.
Since bolting Likud and launching his "New Hope" party last month, Saar has
made no secret that their battle is personal. In his inaugural speech, he
accused Netanyahu of creating a "cult of personality" --- a term he repeated
Thursday to describe those who blindly support Netanyahu's claims that his
corruption trial is a conspiracy.
Saar said a key moment for him came last May, when Netanyahu arrived at the
courthouse for the opening of his trial joined by a group of Likud ministers
and lawmakers. The group stood silently behind Netanyahu as he accused the
media and justice system of trying to topple him.
"A cult of personality is when the most important thing in order to be
advanced in a political system is to flatter and serve the personal interests
of its leader," Saar said. He said that while Netanyahu has the right to fight
the charges against him, his claims of a grand conspiracy are "absolute
Netanyahu's tactics have drawn comparisons to Trump, who showered his
Israeli counterpart with diplomatic gifts, ranging from the recognition of
Jerusalem as Israel's capital to brokering normalization agreements between
Israel and four Arab countries.
Saar said he had great respect for Trump's contributions to Israel and did
not want to wade into U.S. politics. But in an apparent reference to the
pro-Trump mob that stormed the Capitol, he said: "I cannot identify with talk
that delegitimized the democratic electoral process and its results."
Saar is among the legions of critics who believe that Israel is being
dragged into its fourth election in just two years due to Netanyahu's legal
troubles and divisive personality. It is widely believed that Netanyahu is
seeking a coalition of allies willing to grant him immunity from prosecution.
Saar, emerging as Netanyahu's biggest challenger in the March 23 election,
appears poised to prevent that. Opinion polls project New Hope will become the
second-largest party in parliament, smaller than Likud but with enough seats to
prevent Netanyahu from assembling a majority.
That has made Saar the unofficial leader of a diverse group of "anyone but
Bibi" parties that refuse to serve under Netanyahu, who is widely known by his
nickname. Netanyahu says his opponents are motivated by sour grapes and little
more than shared animosity toward him.
Saar believes he can find enough common ground to form an alternative
coalition. In a reflection of his political savvy and ability to work with
rivals, he coordinated a surprise late-night parliamentary maneuver last month
that caused the coalition to collapse.
Saar described himself as pragmatic. He said, for example, he welcomed
Netanyahu's agreement to shelve a plan to annex parts of the occupied West Bank
as part of last year's agreement establishing diplomatic ties with the United
Arab Emirates. He said he would respect that pledge if elected.
If elected, Saar's first big test with the Biden administration is likely to
be the Iranian nuclear issue.
In 2015, Netanyahu famously delivered a speech to Congress to lobby against
the Iran deal as then-President Barack Obama was wrapping it up. Netanyahu was
a driving force in Trump's decision to withdraw from the deal, one of Obama's
signature achievements. His confrontation with Obama remains a sore point with
Saar said he respected Netanyahu's campaign, but that times have changed and
a new approach will be needed to make sure the nuclear deal is not revived in
its original form. He said he would seek a mutually respectful dialogue to
ensure that Iran never develops a nuclear bomb.
"I will have to deal with the political reality of 2021," he said. "I will
do it much better than anyone else."