Syrian dictator Bashar Assad must go, and Israel must help convince the international community to bring him down, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s former No.2 in the Likud, Gideon Sa’ar, told The Jerusalem Post Sunday.
In his first interview with a print newspaper since he returned to politics following a two-and-a-half year hiatus, Sa’ar explained why he has the best chance to succeed Netanyahu as prime minister.
During his timeout from politics, Sa’ar conducted in-depth research of the Syrian issue at the Institute for National Security Studies, adding to the knowledge he gained in the security cabinet.
“Israel has an interest in Assad losing power,” Sa’ar said. “His replacement won’t be a Zionist. But Iran is the most dangerous enemy of Israel, and therefore its control over Syria and its ability to deliver arms to Hezbollah make it the most problematic situation for us.”
Sa’ar said he does not think Israel should be involved militarily in Syria, but if the US decided to remove Assad, it will be in Israel’s interest.
He praised the American attack on a Syrian base Friday morning, but said it was a pinpoint strike in response to Assad using chemical weapons and does not show an American strategy on Syria.
The former minister explained that the world lives in fear of radical Sunni Islam, because ISIS is behind most of the recent terrorist attacks in the world, but because Iran is the dominant military force funding terrorism in the region, is pursuing nuclear weapons and exports Islamic radicalism, Israel sees it as much more dangerous. He said that makes Israel’s focus on Iran different than that of the international community.
“We have to understand what our interests are, then persuade the world, which is not simple,” he said. “But the Trump administration sees the world differently than the Obama administration, which saw Iran as stabilizing the region.”
Asked whether he backed Netanyahu’s efforts to prevent Obama’s deal with Iran, he said he supported the prime minister’s decision to address Congress and warn against the agreement. But he suggested that perhaps the efforts should have ended once they were hopeless because of the importance of maintaining bipartisan US support for Israel.
“Once the deal was signed, I have my doubts as to whether continuing the struggle was the right thing to do,” he said. “Continuing to fight the deal once it was signed did not change anything, and it is doubtful we could have changed anything at that stage.”
Sa’ar lamented that a decision on attacking Iran did not reach the security cabinet between 2011 and 2013, when the geopolitical situation would have made it relatively easier. He now favors a regional security framework formalizing cooperation between Israel and its neighbors against the Iranian threat.
Israel has mutual strategic interests with Egypt and Jordan against Iran, Sa’ar said. He warned that those interests could be harmed by engaging in the Palestinian issue. Unlike Netanyahu, Zionist Union head Isaac Herzog and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, Sa’ar is more cautious about using a regional approach to solving the Palestinian issue.
“A regional approach is just a slogan, so the question is what the content would be,” he said. “There are two options. If Jordan and Egypt take part in the solution – the approach can be constructive. But if the Arab countries back the Palestinians, pressure on Israel would grow and this would not serve Israel’s interests.”
Sa’ar said possible ideas for the Trump administration to consider would be a confederation of Jordan with the Palestinian Authority, and former national security council head Giora Eiland’s plan for regional exchanges of territories that includes expanding Palestinian-controlled territory into the Sinai Peninsula.
When asked what his advice would be to Trump, he said: “Israel needs to present new ideas, not the paradigm that has failed over the past 25 years. The negotiations didn’t just fail time after time, even after Israel presented generous offers.
The paradigm of a Palestinian state based on 67 lines and dividing Jerusalem cannot work. It’s not practical.
It won’t give the Palestinians a viable state or bring security to Israel.”
Sa’ar has been careful not to criticize Netanyahu since his return, following tradition in the Likud of respecting the party leader.
He went further on Sunday, saying that his comeback is not impacted by investigations of Netanyahu and that he hopes the current government can last its full term, which ends in November 2019.
“I said all along that I would return to politics within the Likud, and with elections taking place no later than 2019; I can’t come back 15 minutes before,” he said. “I have to work and that means journeying all over the country, presenting Likudniks and the general public with ideas and reforms I thought of during my break from politics.”
Sa’ar will soon begin in Haifa and he has already set 10 stops. He made his comeback speech in Acre to put an emphasis on helping those in the periphery, where he believes his ideas could improve the quality of life.
Although Sa’ar opposed the Likud’s decision to already select Netanyahu as its candidate in the next general election, he has accepted it and is preparing for the post-Netanyahu era, whenever it comes.
When Sa’ar announced his comeback, Lapid praised him and expressed hope they would work together in the future. But Sa’ar poured cold water over Lapid’s idea of heading a government that would include the Likud as a coalition partner in a government led by Yesh Atid.
“I don’t believe in Lapid’s path, and ideology is what matters,” he said. “The Likud must lead and Lapid, like others, cannot be ruled out as a partner for us. It is healthy that the Likud has tended to be either be in power or in the opposition.”
Asked if it bothers him how little he is known overseas compared to Lapid and others, Sa’ar said he will continue devoting most of his efforts to reaching out to Israelis.
“When I run for prime minister, I don’t know if Lapid will still be a candidate, but I have a higher chance of getting elected and forming a government than he does,” he said. “I have much wider support.
I have the best chance of anyone to be the next prime minister.”