Israel’s Gideon Saar challenges lengthy Netanyahu Likud rule

Saar has long been considered a rising star in Likud. (AP)
Updated 10 October 2019

Israel’s Gideon Saar challenges lengthy Netanyahu Likud rule

  • For Saar, it was a move long in the making
  • “Gideon has no fear and he’s straight as an arrow,” said Shimshon Shoshani, Saar’s former director general in the Education Ministry.

JERUSALEM: 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.
“Gideon has no fear and he’s straight as an arrow,” said Shimshon Shoshani, Saar’s former director general in the Education Ministry.
Though he didn’t share Saar’s right-wing ideology, Shoshani said they worked in tandem on bold education initiatives and he saw a public servant fit to lead the country.
“He’s a man who has a vision, and he knows how to translate that vision into concrete plans,” said Shoshani, an 82-year-old veteran of the Israeli bureaucracy.
Despite his hard-line positions, Saar enjoys good relations across the political spectrum and is perceived as a potentially more comfortable partner for a unity government with the rival Blue and White party, which emerged as the largest party in last month’s election.
But neither it nor the Likud control a parliamentary majority. A coalition government between the two parties appears to be the best way out of the deadlock, but Blue and White’s leader, former military chief Benny Gantz, refuses to sit with Netanyahu because of his expected indictment on corruption charges.
Saar’s independent streak has drawn frequent fire from Netanyahu’s lackeys, and Netanyahu himself last year accused Saar of orchestrating a “putsch” with Rivlin to unseat him.
Under Israeli law, if neither Netanyahu nor Gantz can form a coalition, a majority of lawmakers could theoretically choose an alternative as prime minister. Saar is widely seen as the politician most capable of winning such support.
With a primary election seemingly off the table for now, Netanyahu is talking about convening a Likud functionary body to stipulate he’s the party’s sole candidate for prime minister.
Netanyahu’s office has refused to comment about his plans. However, Limor Livnat, a former Likud Cabinet minister and Netanyahu ally, decried the conduct against Saar as a show of weakness.
“Instead of cultivating potential successors, Netanyahu has neutralized every Likud member who has shown any independence and has surrounded himself with yes-men,” she wrote in the Yediot Ahronot daily. “Since when is announcing one’s candidacy in a party primary construed as a plot against the incumbent party chairman?“
Eran Davidi, a long-time confidante of Saar’s, said Saar and Netanyahu have not met in five years and the enmity was likely to cost Saar a Cabinet post if Netanyahu succeeds in forming another government. But if he fails again, and the country heads to an unprecedented third election within a year, Davidi said he expected the long-hidden cracks to finally emerge within Likud.
While others have expressed interest in heading the party after Netanyahu voluntarily steps aside, Saar remains the only one who doesn’t intend to wait till that happens.
“He has ambitions and he has said that he came back to politics to lead the country,” Davidi said. “Eventually, the Likud members will appreciate that he had the courage to run. That’s the qualities of a leader.”


Family of Palestinian slain by police sees probe dragging on

Updated 11 min 2 sec ago

Family of Palestinian slain by police sees probe dragging on

  • Eyad was fatally shot on May 30 just inside Jerusalem’s Old City as he was making his daily walk to the special-needs school he attended
  • Police said they believed the 32-year-old was carrying a “suspicious object” and said they opened fire when he failed to heed calls to stop

JERUSALEM: The family of a Palestinian man with autism who was fatally shot by Israeli police said on Thursday that it took a month for authorities to confirm the existence of security-camera footage of the shooting, raising concerns that no one will be punished for killing their son.
The existence of the footage had been in question throughout an investigation that the family says has been painfully slow. Rights groups say Israel has a poor record of investigating and prosecuting police violence against Palestinians.
“The police say the investigation is ongoing. Though it is late, we hope that it will end by delivering justice,” said Khiri Hallaq, the man’s father.
His son, Eyad, was fatally shot on May 30 just inside Jerusalem’s Old City as he was making his daily walk to the special-needs school he attended.
At the time, police said they believed the 32-year-old was carrying a “suspicious object” and said they opened fire when he failed to heed calls to stop.
According to various accounts, two members of Israel’s paramilitary border police force chased Hallaq into a nook and shot him as he cowered next to a garbage bin.
Hallaq’s teacher, who was with him, told an Israeli TV station that Hallaq, who had difficulties speaking, fell to the ground after being shot, then ran for cover next to the garbage container. She said she repeatedly cried out to police that he was “disabled” and tried in vain to stop the shooting. At least five bullet holes were seen in a wall of a small structure at the site.
At the time, the shooting drew comparisons to the death of George Floyd in the US and prompted a series of small demonstrations against police violence. The uproar crossed Israeli-Palestinian lines and drew Jewish protesters as well.
Israel’s defense minister, Benny Gantz, said Israel was “very sorry,” while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the incident a “tragedy” and promised a thorough investigation.
Since then, however, the family has heard little while the two officers involved in the shooting have reportedly been released from house arrest.
On Wednesday, after a month of pressure by the family, Israeli officials confirmed in a court hearing that investigators are studying security-camera footage of the shooting, said the family’s lawyer.
Israel’s Haaretz daily had reported earlier this week that there may not be any footage, even though the streets and alleyways of the volatile Old City are lined with hundreds of security cameras.
The lawyer, Jad Qadamani, said the family has not been permitted to see any of the videos because they are evidence in an ongoing investigation.
Nonetheless, he said they are “more calm because we know the videos are there.” He called the footage “an important tool” in the investigation.
Qadamani said the family was frustrated that it had required so much effort for authorities to acknowledge the existence of the videos and that the investigation has dragged on for so long.
“Maybe there is a need to investigate, but not to this extent,” he said.
Cases involving police violence are referred to an independent internal investigations department under the Justice Ministry called “machash.” The ministry said the case remains under investigation and declined further comment. Israeli police referred questions to the ministry.
According to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, cases referred to the department rarely end with disciplinary action.
It said that over 80% of more than 5,400 cases sent to machash from 2015 to 2018 were not investigated at all, and no more than 3% of complaints resulted in indictments. About 20 cases each year result in disciplinary proceedings for the use of force, and most of those end up with little more than a reprimand or reduction in rank.
It said the figures were based on official data obtained through a freedom of information request.
The statistics “speak for themselves,” ACRI said. “With an overwhelming majority of complaints against police violence never investigated and a complete lack of accountability on behalf of authorities, the cycle of the abhorrent use of police force will never cease.”
It said the police profiling of minorities is also a “severe problem.”
Qadamani, the family lawyer, said it has been difficult for them to trust the system but they remained hopeful.
“The feeling is very problematic. I expect and very much want to believe that they will take the real and correct steps for justice for Eyad,” he said.