Gideon Saar, the leading rival of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu inside the governing Likud party, announced on Tuesday he was breaking away to form a new political party ahead of elections expected early next year.
In a statement broadcast on national television, Saar said Netanyahu had bungled the management of the health and economic crises stemming from the coronavirus pandemic and turned Likud into a tool for personal survival at a time when he is on trial for corruption charges.
Saar said he could not serve under Netanyahu any longer and would seek the prime minister’s post himself as the head of a new party.
“A change in the country’s leadership is needed,” Saar said. “Today, Israel needs unity and stability. Netanyahu can’t and won’t be able to provide either.”
Saar, 53, likened Likud members’ support for Netanyahu to that of a “personality cult”.
Announcing his resignation from Likud and Parliament, Saar said: “I have decided to establish and lead a new political movement in which I will run in the coming election against Netanyahu in order to replace him as prime minister.”
A former aide and senior cabinet minister under Netanyahu, Saar was long considered a rising star in Likud. He held the senior posts of education minister and interior minister under Netanyahu and finished first in party primaries.
But like other Likud members who have risen too fast, he began to be perceived by Netanyahu as a threat. He took a break from politics in 2014, then returned to Likud last year, only to be trounced by Netanyahu in a party primary.
While Saar seems unlikely to be a major contender for prime minister in the next elections, he could siphon off votes of nationalist voters who have grown unhappy with Netanyahu. That could complicate Netanyahu’s task of forming a new coalition if a vote is held.
In a statement, Likud said Saar was leaving because he was disappointed over his loss in the primary vote and had seen his popularity plunge in internal party polls.
Netanyahu this year formed a coalition with his main rival, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, with the stated aim of managing the coronavirus crisis. But their partnership has been plagued by mistrust and paralysis.
Gantz last week voted in favour of a preliminary motion to dissolve Parliament and hold new elections.
Although last-ditch negotiations are taking place to save the coalition, Parliament is expected to make a final decision this month on what would be the fourth national election in just two years.