There’s Gideon the cool Tel Aviv DJ, then there’s Gideon the nationalist

December 26, 2019

 

IN TODAY’S VOTE, NETANYAHU FACES HIS BIGGEST CHALLENGE AS PARTY LEADER FOR A DECADE

[Note by Tom Gross]

Today, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces his biggest political challenge to the leadership of Israel’s ruling Likud party for over a decade, when he will be challenged in a Likud primary leadership contest by Gideon Sa’ar (a former journalist, lawyer and then a government minister). If Netanyahu loses, Sa’ar will likely become interim prime minister.

In the photo above from 2003, then Israeli Likud prime minister Ariel Sharon is flanked by Netanyahu to his left and by Sa’ar to his right (when we are looking at the photo), during a Likud party meeting. In many respects, ideologically too, Sa’ar is on the right of Sharon and Netanyahu on the left of Sharon, at least in some respects. (Contrary to the international media’s misreporting of Netanyahu, Netanyahu is many ways, for example with regard to international and military polices, politically centrist, and even to the left of some in the Blue and White and other center and center-left parties.)

I attach two pieces below, by Anshel Pfeffer in today’s leading left-wing Israeli paper Haaretz, and by Isabel Kershner in the New York Times, a paper that continues to obsess about Israel and devote enormous amounts of space to scrutinizing the small Jewish state while all but ignoring much of the rest of the world.

Pfeffer is a very knowledgeable journalist though sometimes he allows his disdain for Netanyahu and the Likud to cloud the impartiality of his reporting.

Gideon Sa’ar is unlikely to win today’s vote. However, if he makes a strong challenge, as expected, he will set himself up as the clear favorite to succeed Netanyahu should Netanyahu fail to win the Israeli election on March 2 (the third general election in Israel in less than a year) and Netanyahu is then forced from power. (Sa’ar would likely then form a unity government with Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz.)

 

ARTICLE EXTRACT

Anshel Pfeffer, Haaretz:

In his 13 years as an MK and a minister, Sa’ar constructed a dual persona. There’s the cool secular Tel Avivian with his glamorous second wife, television anchor Geula Even, constantly by his side. This cool Sa’ar occasionally did guest DJ stints in trendy clubs and is beloved by the media, where he has a number of friends and key allies who receive off-the-record briefings from him. Cool Sa’ar is a liberal whose first law in the Knesset curbed the police’s power to handcuff suspects brought to court. Cool Sa’ar is the only male MK to chair the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality, and he pushed through legislation extending paid maternity leave to 14 weeks.

Then there’s Gideon the nationalist, who as education minister made high schools send their students on tours of the Jewish settlement in Hebron and upgraded the status of what would become Ariel University in the West Bank. Gideon the nationalist as interior minister set up the Holot detention center for African asylum seekers in the Negev and drastically reduced the number of bureaucrats handling their asylum requests.

But he was cool Sa’ar as education minister as well; for example, when he dramatically increased teachers’ salaries and extended free childcare to 3-year-olds. And he was cool as interior minister when he extended the boundaries of local councils – including those of the Negev Bedouin – to areas paying high local taxes, thus increasing the poor communities’ budgets.

The media loves cool Sa’ar mainly because he’s not Netanyahu. He plays by the rules and doesn’t overtly incite against leftists and Arabs. But his Likudnik supporters vote for Gideon the nationalist because unlike previous Likud leaders [including Netanyahu], he has never voted for a pullback or settlement freeze.

As Saar put it Tuesday evening at a meeting with supporters in Jerusalem: “I won’t just talk about extending sovereignty to the settlements in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] and the Jordan Valley. I’ll do it.” [Netanyahu often promises right wing policies but rarely actually carries them out.]

… Jabotinsky wasn’t just a nationalist, he wrote extensively on civil rights as well, and Sa’ar can quote Jabotinsky for hours.

His chances of beating Netanyahu this time around aren’t considered very high. Sa’ar is too calculated a politician to embark on a campaign just for a small chance of victory. This is part of a long-term strategy of positioning himself as Netanyahu’s likely heir, even though this strategy will probably need another leadership election after Netanyahu is forced out of office. Unless Sa’ar loses very badly Thursday, he will have placed himself in many Likudniks’ minds as their next leader.

His fans in the party liken him to Yitzhak Shamir, Likud’s most rigidly ideological leader, but also its least charismatic. When alone with his close friends, Sa’ar can be funny and engaging, but a stiffness plagues him in public. His speeches are competent, especially when it comes to mastering detail, but he’s incapable of casting a spell on an audience, as Netanyahu can in a way that seems almost effortless, or in the passionate way Menachem Begin had…

 

FULL ARTICLES

NETANYAHU COULD BE OUSTED BY THIS MAN

Cool Tel Avivian or Pro-settler Nationalist? Netanyahu Could Be Ousted by This Man

Gideon Sa’ar was an outsider far to the right of Likud, but he went on to help Netanyahu transform the party from a beaten shell of itself to a fighting parliamentary machine. Now he’s back to try to take over the party

By Anshel Pfeffer
Haaretz
December 26, 2019

https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-cool-dj-or-radical-nationalist-netanyahu-could-be-ousted-by-this-man-1.8317823

Last Wednesday, Geula Cohen was laid to rest on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. The former Knesset member and matriarch of the Israeli right wing had died just a week short of her 94th birthday. President Reuven Rivlin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu both attended and eulogized her, as did her son, Likud minister Tzachi Hanegbi.

One of Cohen’s oldest comrades sought out another Likud politician standing a few rows back. “Geula said many years ago that you would one day be prime minister,” the comrade whispered to Gideon Sa’ar, a former Likud minister and the only candidate running against Netanyahu in Thursday’s election for Likud leader.

Few remember it, but Geula Cohen was one of the earliest political influences and mentors of Gideon Zarechansky, as he was known then. Neither of the two were Likud members. Cohen was a leader of the smaller, far-right Tehiya party, and Sa’ar, a former national organizer of the youth wing, remained active in the party as a student. If Cohen had listened to Sa’ar and like-minded party members in 1992 and not pulled out of Yitzhak Shamir’s Likud government, Israeli history might have turned out differently.

The place that has become synonymous with Sa’ar’s image is Tel Aviv – where he was born and lives today. He’s the Tel Aviv Likudnik. Of course, there’s nothing out of the ordinary about Sa’ar living and socializing in Tel Aviv, except for the fact that in so many people’s minds, the Israel of Tel Aviv is the antithesis of the Israel of Likud. Being a consummate Tel Avivian makes Sa’ar, mistakenly, seem to many people somehow less of a staunch nationalist.

Sa’ar actually spent part of his childhood in a much more left-wing environment than Tel Aviv. When he was 2, the family, following father Shmuel’s job as a pediatrician, moved to the Negev town of Mitzpeh Ramon, and two years later to nearby Kibbutz Sde Boker, where they lived for five years.

Shmuel Zarechansky’s job as the kibbutz doctor meant he also came into regular contact with Sde Boker’s most illustrious resident, David Ben-Gurion, whose archives contain the medications and diet prescribed him in Zarechansky’s haphazard handwriting. His eldest son Gideon would sometimes join him when he visited the Old Man in his kibbutz bungalow.

Ben-Gurion, as leader of Zionism’s socialist wing, had an often tempestuous relationship with the leaders of the right-wing Zionist-Revisionist movement that later became Likud: Zeev Jabotinsky and Menachem Begin. More than once he accused them of fascistic and even Nazi tendencies. His relationship with the young Gideon Sa’ar seems to have been much friendlier, replete with geography quizzes for the young boy, who already took a keen interest in politics.

Whatever effect getting to know Israel’s founding father may have had on Sa’ar, it didn’t seem to influence his politics. A few years after the family returned to Tel Aviv, he joined the youth wing of Tehiya, which had been founded in 1979 by Cohen, a Likud MK who broke with the party when Begin signed the Camp David peace accords with Egypt. This included Israel’s returning of the Sinai Peninsula and agreeing to hold autonomy talks over the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Tehiya, which means revival, was the party of Israelis who felt that Likud had lost its nationalist principles when it became the party of government in 1977. But as a nominally secular party (though it had prominent religious members as well) to the right of Likud, it failed to win more than a handful of Knesset seats in elections, flitted between the governing coalition and the opposition, and lasted only 13 years. During that period, Sa’ar and Zvi Hauser, today a Kahol Lavan MK, were leaders of Tehiya’s youth and student groups. A less prominent member of the youth wing was Naftali Bennett, now defense minister.

Each of them, Sa’ar, Hauser and Bennett, went on to join Likud, serve as a close aide to Netanyahu, and end up a bitter critic and rival of Bibi within the right wing.

In an interview with the daily Maariv as a high school senior, just before the 1984 election, Sa’ar was scornful of the two big parties, Likud and Labor. He said the two were “betraying the public and especially us [young voters] .... To achieve what they want, they ramp up fanaticism and hatred. How am I supposed to feel when I’m treated like an idiot and expected to choose who to run the country?”

Politics were everything for Sa’ar as a teenager. He loved music and began collecting for what would become his extensive record collection, but his social life was devoted to Tehiya. He even met his first wife, Shelly, at a right-wing demonstration.

In the interview, Sa’ar said he intended to join the Paratroopers for his army service: “I won’t be doing it for [Labor’s Shimon] Peres and not for [Likud’s Yitzhak] Shamir. But I’ll do it with all my energy so it’s clear that Jews can live here and that there are those who will defend them from those who think otherwise.”

He ended up serving not in the Paratroopers but in the slightly less prestigious Golani infantry brigade. After his discharge in 1987, he spent six years studying political science and then law.

He kept up his political activism, this time in the right-wing student union at Tel Aviv University, which was run jointly by Likud and Tehiya members. Right-wingers at TAU have always been a distinct minority, just as they were when Sa’ar went to Tichon Hadash High School in north Tel Aviv. But he never found his political activism a social disadvantage. His first job after the army was as a reporter and then a columnist in the mildly anarchic weekly Haolam Hazeh, from where he soon moved on to Hadashot, a daily tabloid owned by the Haaretz Group.

NETANYAHU’S LIKUD

The six years he spent as a part-time journalist would influence his future career. For a start, when he began publishing articles, he changed his last name from Zarechansky to Sa’ar, Hebrew for storm. And in the eyes of some, even though there is no evidence whatsoever that he moderated his political views, the fact that he worked for two newspapers clearly aligned with the left still taints him as a suspect leftist. His reporting also brought him in contact with Likud’s new meteor, former UN Ambassador Benjamin Netanyahu, who in 1988 shocked the party by winning the first round of voting for the party’s Knesset slate.

Tehiya was part of Shamir’s last government, formed in June 1990. But 18 months later, following Shamir’s decision under intense U.S. pressure to attend the Madrid peace conference with Palestinian representatives, the party left the coalition in protest.

“It was a controversial move to bail on a right-wing government,” said a senior member of the party at the time. “Geula Cohen, who was always more radical, was the main force behind it. Yuval Ne’eman and the group around him were more pragmatic and argued that it could lead to the left coming to power. Sa’ar was part of that group, but they lost the argument. And in the end they were proved right.”

Without the far right’s support, Shamir was forced to call an early election for June 1992. The vote took place during a period of Palestinian stabbing attacks. With Shamir’s credibility eroded by the ongoing intifada, Labor, once again under the leadership of “Mr. Security” Yitzhak Rabin, won the election. Tehiya, which had been blamed by many right-wingers for bringing down the Likud government, failed to pass the electoral threshold. Without any MKs, Tehiya disbanded after many of its members, including Cohen and Sa’ar, joined Likud.

Upon completing his law degree and passing the bar, Sa’ar abandoned journalism for a second short career at a place seen by many Likudniks as another bastion of the left – the Justice Ministry. He worked as an assistant to the attorney general and then to the state prosecutor, but politics remained his first calling.

At the end of 1998, Netanyahu, then in his first chaotic term as prime minister, found himself in a very similar position to that of Shamir seven years earlier. He had been forced by U.S. President Bill Clinton to attend the Wye River summit with Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, and following the agreement signed there, the far-right members of his coalition pulled out. As preparations for an early election began, Netanyahu’s cabinet secretary, Danny Naveh, resigned so he could run for a spot on the Likud ticket.

Netanyahu offered the job to Zvi Hauser, who was loath to move to the cabinet secretariat, where he was sure he’d have a short tenure because Netanyahu was widely expected to lose the election to Ehud Barak. So he suggested his old friend from the Tehiya youth movement, Sa’ar.

Appointing Sa’ar, who had just moved to the Tel Aviv district prosecutor’s office, had a number of advantages from Netanyahu’s perspective. He was already a civil servant so he could be appointed immediately. He was politically reliable and the chronically suspicious Netanyahu already knew him.

The cabinet secretary, in charge of coordinating the prime minister’s agenda, the government’s legislative affairs and ministerial committees, is one of the most complex positions in the civil service. But the 32-year-old Sa’ar, with his political mind, wonkishness, lightning ability to master the most detailed briefs and by then high-level legal experience proved a natural fit. The only catch was that Netanyahu indeed lost the election and Sa’ar was out of the job in just six months.

Instead of heading back to the Justice Ministry, Sa’ar embarked on yet another brief career, this time as a lawyer in the private sector. But when Barak’s government turned out to be the most short-lived in Israeli history, and Ariel Sharon won a special election for prime minister in March 2001, Sa’ar was called back to serve as cabinet secretary once again.

SHARON’S WHIP

Sa’ar had not been close to Sharon, another Likud leader who demanded fanatical loyalty from his aides. And Sa’ar was widely seen as Netanyahu’s man.

But the newly elected prime minister needed someone with experience, as he was about to take control of a government in which Likud was of a similar size as the Labor and Shas parties. Sharon knew he would struggle to implement his agenda while dealing with the second intifada and fending off leadership challenges from Netanyahu. Sa’ar, however, had impressed Sharon when he served on Likud’s negotiating team in the coalition talks with Labor. Sharon convinced him to shutter his new law firm and return to public service.

Sa’ar’s success in gaining Sharon’s confidence can be gauged by the fact that two years later, Sharon tapped the newly elected MK as Likud’s floor leader and coalition whip.

The next few years would be stormy for the party, as the Sharon-Netanyahu rivalry tore Likud apart. And then there was the disengagement plan from Gaza. Unlike Likudniks such as Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni who went along with Sharon’s plan and gradually dropped the “whole Land of Israel” position they had been brought up on, Sa’ar remained faithful to the Tehiya principles, which he interpreted as Likud’s fundamental Jabotinskean values, and voted against the prime minister’s plan to withdraw from Gaza. But as floor leader and coalition whip, he had the responsibility of ensuring that the government had a functioning majority in the Knesset. Twice he resigned from the post and was pressured by Sharon to remain.

In November 2005, with the disengagement from Gaza complete, Sharon announced that he was leaving Likud and forming a new centrist party, Kadima. Sa’ar was offered by Sharon a prominent spot on the new party’s list, but he refused to leave along with Olmert and Livni, and even Cohen’s son Hanegbi. He knew full well that Likud, once again under Netanyahu, was heading for an electoral downfall. But even he didn’t expect it to win only 12 seats in the 2006 election. On election night, as the results came in, the knives were out for Netanyahu, but Sa’ar was one of the handful of MKs who joined the leader onstage as he made his concession speech.

It would not be exaggerating to say that Netanyahu owes his comeback, from the lowest point in his political career back to the prime minister’s office three years later, in large part to Sa’ar. Once again, Sa’ar was appointed Likud floor leader, where he helped rally the party around Netanyahu and fend off the challenges to his leadership, while also working to erode the Kadima coalition. It seemed at first an impossible task, with Likud so diminished and Kadima, now under Olmert, positioning itself as the new party of power.

But Sa’ar proved himself a master of both Knesset procedure and political intrigue, locating and exploiting every crack in the Kadima coalition, obstructing government legislation and prizing away rebels. He transformed Likud from a beaten shell of itself into a fighting parliamentary machine.

Sa’ar’s work in opposition would be recognized by party members when he was elected to the top spot in the party’s 2009 primary and once again in 2013. With Likud back in government, he was awarded by Netanyahu the senior ministerial portfolios of education in 2009 and the interior in 2013.

But ultimately, Netanyahu never lets others flourish around him for long, and Sa’ar was already being talked up as a future prime minister. Sa’ar was also proving a bit too independent for Netanyahu’s liking, as was another popular Likudnik and staunch Jabotinskean, Reuven Rivlin.

In June 2014, Netanyahu did everything in his power to prevent Rivlin from being elected president, going so far as to try to abolish the presidency. When that failed, he tried to offer it to an incredulous non-Israeli, Elie Wiesel.

It was Sa’ar who masterminded Rivlin’s successful campaign. Sa’ar could claim that he was only doing his duty: to ensure the election of the candidate endorsed by Likud’s Knesset representation. But his relationship with Netanyahu would never recover. Three months later, he announced that he was taking a break from politics. There was no doubt, however, that this was temporary. Five years ago it was clear that Sa’ar would be back and one day take on Netanyahu.

COOL SA’AR VS. GIDEON THE NATIONALIST

In his 13 years as an MK and a minister, Sa’ar constructed a dual persona. There’s the cool secular Tel Avivian with his glamorous second wife, television anchor Geula Even, constantly by his side. This cool Sa’ar occasionally did guest DJ stints in trendy clubs and is beloved by the media, where he has a number of friends and key allies who receive off-the-record briefings from him. Cool Sa’ar is a liberal whose first law in the Knesset curbed the police’s power to handcuff suspects brought to court. Cool Sa’ar is the only male MK to chair the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality, and he pushed through legislation extending paid maternity leave to 14 weeks.

Then there’s Gideon the nationalist, who as education minister made high schools send their students on tours of the Jewish settlement in Hebron and upgraded the status of what would become Ariel University in the West Bank. Gideon the nationalist as interior minister set up the Holot detention center for African asylum seekers in the Negev and drastically reduced the number of bureaucrats handling their asylum requests.

But he was cool Sa’ar as education minister as well; for example, when he dramatically increased teachers’ salaries and extended free childcare to 3-year-olds. And he was cool as interior minister when he extended the boundaries of local councils – including those of the Negev Bedouin – to areas paying high local taxes, thus increasing the poor communities’ budgets.

The media loves cool Sa’ar mainly because he’s not Netanyahu. He plays by the rules and doesn’t overtly incite against leftists and Arabs. But his Likudnik supporters vote for Gideon the nationalist because unlike previous Likud leaders, he has never voted for a pullback or settlement freeze.

Sa’ar has never once criticized Netanyahu’s policies. On anything. He only criticizes what he claims is a lack of action and implementation. As he put it Tuesday evening at a meeting with supporters in Jerusalem: “I won’t just talk about extending sovereignty to the settlements in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] and the Jordan Valley. I’ll do it.”

Does this mean he could become the most right-wing prime minister in Israeli history, but one with a cool Tel Aviv exterior? Is he simply a slightly older, male version of right-winger Ayelet Shaked, who sometimes gets a pass because she too is secular?

Sa’ar’s supporters insist that this is the real Likud, which still goes by the official title National Liberal Party. To Sa’ar’s credit, he may even be more right-wing than Netanyahu in many ways, but unlike the prime minister, who only takes an interest in security, diplomacy and macroeconomics, Sa’ar has actual social policies, especially on education, on which he can expand in great detail and at excruciating length.

He’s a details guy, and he didn’t start to care, for example, about the rights of criminal suspects only when a Likud prime minister became one. Jabotinsky wasn’t just a nationalist, he wrote extensively on civil rights as well, and Sa’ar can quote Jabotinsky for hours.

His chances of beating Netanyahu this time around aren’t considered very high. Sa’ar is too calculated a politician to embark on a campaign just for a small chance of victory. This is part of a long-term strategy of positioning himself as Netanyahu’s likely heir, even though this strategy will probably need another leadership election after Netanyahu is forced out of office. Unless Sa’ar loses very badly Thursday, he will have placed himself in many Likudniks’ minds as their next leader.

His fans in the party liken him to Yitzhak Shamir, Likud’s most rigidly ideological leader, but also its least charismatic. When alone with his close friends, Sa’ar can be funny and engaging, but a stiffness plagues him in public. His speeches are competent, especially when it comes to mastering detail, but he’s incapable of casting a spell on an audience, as Netanyahu can in a way that seems almost effortless, or in the passionate way Menachem Begin had.

“You don’t feel any electricity when Gideon comes into the room,” said a supporter waiting for him Tuesday evening in Jerusalem. “He’s a quiet person. But after so many years of Bibi, we need a bit of quiet.”

 

BREAKING RANKS, A RIVAL TAKES ON ISRAEL’S NETANYAHU FROM WITHIN

Breaking Ranks, a Rival Takes on Israel’s Netanyahu From Within
By Isabel Kershner
New York Times
Dec. 22, 2019

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/22/world/middleeast/israel-netanyahu-saar-likud.html

OR YEHUDA, Israel — With Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel politically weakened and steeped in legal troubles, a rival from within his conservative Likud party has emerged to challenge his grip on the party leadership.

After two inconclusive elections ended with Mr. Netanyahu unable to form a government, Gideon Saar, a seasoned if staid party veteran, is running against him in a primary leadership contest on Thursday.

Mr. Saar argues that only a leadership change can save the party, and the country, from doom in the unprecedented third election set for March.

“We see that we are going down in poll after poll,” Mr. Saar told supporters at his primary campaign launch last week in a wedding hall in Or Yehuda, a Tel Aviv suburb and Likud stronghold. “If we do not bring about a change, we are very close to getting a left-wing government, a government that will endanger everything we hold dear.”

Elections in April and September ended in virtual ties with neither Mr. Netanyahu nor his chief rival, Benny Gantz, leader of the centrist Blue and White party, able to form a majority coalition. But polls show support for Mr. Netanyahu softening after he was indicted last month on bribery and other corruption charges, accused of trading official favors worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Israeli media moguls for lavish gifts and positive news coverage.

Mr. Gantz has not ruled out joining a coalition government with Likud but has said he would not serve in a government with a prime minister under indictment.

Mr. Saar, 53, is widely considered one of the next generation of Likud leaders, in line to take over after the departure of Mr. Netanyahu, 70, Israel’s longest serving prime minister. Mr. Saar has served as education and interior minister and tacks slightly to the right of Mr. Netanyahu, assailing him for not taking bolder action to assert Israeli claims on the occupied West Bank.

But his chances of replacing Mr. Netanyahu now are considered low. He inspires little of the emotion and adoration many of the party faithful reserve for the charismatic, media-savvy Mr. Netanyahu, the maestro of political theater who brought Likud to power four times and has led the party for the past 14 years, and a total of 20 years in all. Despite the three criminal cases against him, Mr. Netanyahu still commands solid support within the party.

Likud has had only four leaders since its foundation and rise to power in the 1970s. Likudniks have long prided themselves on their fierce loyalty to their leader, and have never unseated an incumbent before. Many buy into Mr. Netanyahu’s argument that he is the victim of a witch hunt by a left-wing elite that dominates the news media and has pressured the law enforcement authorities to pursue criminal investigations against him.

Still, cracks are appearing in Likud’s united front. While several other would-be Netanyahu successors are waiting for him to exit the stage before making their move, the Saar camp has the endorsement of a handful of lawmakers and a growing following of local party leaders, committee heads and mayors.

They joined hundreds of the party’s rank and file at the campaign launch, sitting under gaudy chandeliers at tables laden with sticky Hanukkah doughnuts. Classic Likud election jingles blared from the sound system and a group of activists tried to whip up the enthusiasm with chants of “Gideon, king of Israel” — a spin on a cheer frequently employed by supporters of Mr. Netanyahu, universally known as Bibi, who sing “Bibi, king of Israel,” to the tune of a popular folk song about King David.

“Bibi did a great job so far but it won’t work this time,” said Reuven Peleg, 67, a businessman. “People want an authentic leader with roots in Likud and a clear ideology. Saar is the cleanest man I know.”

Mr. Saar’s half-hour speech avoided any personal attacks on Mr. Netanyahu or any mention of his legal imbroglio.

“It’s not relevant,” said Michal Peled, 43, a lawyer who attended the launch. “We came for something else.”

Mr. Saar has tried to draw policy distinctions with Mr. Netanyahu. He derides the two-state solution, the internationally accepted idea of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, for instance, as a “slogan” and an “illusion.” Mr. Netanyahu grudgingly endorsed the idea of Palestinian statehood a decade ago, albeit with caveats, but has since retreated.

And while Mr. Netanyahu has expanded Israeli settlements in the West Bank and pledged to annex parts of it if re-elected, Mr. Saar says the prime minister has not been aggressive enough in pressing Israeli control there.

Mr. Saar has made campaign stops at an unauthorized Bedouin village in the occupied West Bank that Mr. Netanyahu has pledged, but failed, to evacuate as well as particularly contentious settlement projects in and around Jerusalem that have also long been on hold because of intense international pressure.

“Saar has elected to manipulate the 3 most problematic, potentially volatile issues to embarrass Netanyahu and garner support,” Daniel Seidemann, a veteran anti-settlement advocate, wrote on Thursday on Twitter.

Mr. Saar, a lawyer by training, began his political career with a stint as cabinet secretary for Mr. Netanyahu during his first term in office in the late 1990s.

As a minister, Mr. Saar raised teachers’ salaries, championed a tough policy toward unauthorized African immigrants and asylum seekers, and redrew municipal boundaries in remote areas to increase the tax revenues of poorer towns.

His dour image was softened a bit by his decision in 2014 to take a time out from politics.

In a second marriage with a popular Israeli journalist and news anchor, Geula Even-Saar, he said he wanted to be home to see his infant son David take his first steps, though many analysts attributed the hiatus to tensions with Mr. Netanyahu, whose habit has been to cut down potential rivals. He announced his comeback in 2017, saying he had returned “to strengthen the Likud.”

Mr. Saar won the No. 2 spot on the party list in 2008 and 2012, but slipped a few places down in February’s contest. Mr. Netanyahu last fought a leadership challenge against Danny Danon in 2014 and won 75 percent of the vote. Mr. Danon is now Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations.

In an odd twist, Mr. Saar has had a run-in with a professed clairvoyant who belittled his chances on television and hinted at fodder for a negative campaign against him. The clairvoyant has now been threatened with a suit by Mr. Saar’s lawyers.

Even if Mr. Saar loses, political analysts said that if he wins as much as 30 or 40 percent of the vote, he will be well positioned as a front-runner in the post-Netanyahu era.

Mr. Netanyahu has been leaving nothing to chance, crisscrossing the country on a whirlwind campaign tour and holding multiple meetings each night at homes and venues packed with loyalists.

He has accused Mr. Saar in the past of conspiring to oust him and some expect a dirty fight. Mr. Saar has requested cameras at primary polling stations and his camp has complained that thousands of supporters’ names had been struck from the voter rolls. Likud, which has up to 120,000 members, said many of them had not paid their dues.

The night of Mr. Saar’s campaign launch in Or Yehuda, Mr. Netanyahu appeared in three towns in central Israel and recorded a Facebook Live video.

“We will win big,” Mr. Netanyahu vowed, exhorting Likudniks not to believe the election polls that currently give a slight advantage to Likud’s main rival, the centrist Blue and White party and its allied center-left bloc.

Across the road from Mr. Saar’s kickoff at the wedding hall, a ragtag bunch of about a dozen Netanyahu supporters were yelling “Bibi! Bibi!” stomping on a Saar campaign T-shirt and branding his supporters as “traitors.”

 

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