Israel’s online freedom is not safe from Gideon Saar

Gideon Saar is no average politician. He has been in politics since 1999, serving first as cabinet secretary under Netanyahu and Sharon, then as a parliamentarian and majority leader, on to the government as education minister and later minister of internal affairs, and now as deputy prime minister and minister of justice. His career spans over 23 years and he was touted through most of those years to be “the fifth leader” of the Likud party and the right-wing in general.

Saar’s rise was built on a symbiotic relationship with the media, and some very senior journalists. He leaked information to them, and attacked the popular Netanyahu, and they in turn propped him up in their opinion polls and columns. Indeed, Saar has rarely known bad press.

Having been “prophesised” to succeed Netanyahu for years, Saar decided to leave the government and politics in late 2014, having seen polls showing Likud under Netanyahu would be crushed in an election, and an election did come soon after his resignation, but instead of losing outright, Likud actually won a surprise victory, and Saar was left out of the Knesset and out of the cabinet. He waited two years before declaring his return to politics, in early 2017, not so coincidently after the allegations against Netanyahu were published in the media. From that point forward and until the “political tangle” that started in 2019, Saar would criticize Netanyahu from the shadows of anonymity. When Israel went to what would be the first of many elections, Saar ran in the Likud primary elections for the party candidate list, and came in at fifth place, a result which both he and Netanyahu saw as a victory, as Saar showed he was still popular with the party faithful, and Netanyahu managed to deny him first place on the list.

Following Likud’s second place in the second round of elections that year, Saar now decided the time was set to make his next move in ousting Netanyahu and began preparing for a leadership election. Netanyahu noticed that and said that anyone who wishes to run for the leadership should do so, hinting to “the rebel” Saar, who in turn tweeted “I’m ready”, and the election was set for December 26th. Saar used polls that showed Likud failing to achieve a majority in the coming 2020 election, and Netanyahu’s legal soft belly. But all the positive media backing was no match for Netanyahu’s popularity within the party, and Saar lost in a landslide with only 27 per cent of the votes. The leadership election boosted Netanyahu and his tactic of grand conventions won him first place in the 2020 election.

The election’s aftermath is a story in of itself, but when Netanyahu and Benny Gantz’s new unity government was presented, Saar was left out again. Exactly a year after he lost the leadership election, Saar made the boldest of his moves to oust Netanyahu and at the height of the third Covid-19 wave, and in the midst of a budget crisis in the government, Saar left Likud to form a political party of his own – “New hope”. Later, his supporters within the Likud group helped to topple the government and Israel went to its fourth election. At the start, Saar was polling ahead of all the other anti-Netanyahu groups, but as time went on, his support faded and he went from a predicted 21 seats at the start, to only six on election night. Saar then chose to join the so called “cabinet of change” formed by Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett, as minister of justice.

From the first moment of siding with the Left, Saar and his number two, Zeev Elkin, went on to take a personal revenge on the party they left: they appointed all of the Knesset committees in a one-sided manner without coming to an agreement with the opposition on the sharing of those committees between government and opposition. They gave government parties a disproportionate share of seats in important committees, a majority of more than one member and giving the government leadership of all of the senior committees, even ones that traditionally would be led by the opposition. At the same time, the opposition was given a disproportionate majority and share in the minor committees. At the same time, they amended the law regarding the splitting of a parliamentary group, from a third of any given group to just four members, in an attempt to split the Likud group. The third thing they did was push for two laws, which will deny Netanyahu from running again and being prime minister: the first ruled that any PM who would charged by the attorney general would have to resign, and the other is a term limit of just eight years on a PM’s tenure.

Now Saar is pushing for another law: one which will allow a judge to take down posts from the internet. The law was first presented as a law “against fake news” but when that did not hold up to scrutiny, they turned it into an “anti-bullying” law. How can the party that up until now ran over its opposition and critics, and which has the most criticism on social media be seen as trustworthy on the issue of internet freedom?

Saar himself has been known for blocking all of his critics online and hiding negative comments. It’s even more troubling when one notices that social media and the internet in general were the greatest weapon of one Benjamin Netanyahu, who in turn, took down any law that sought to curb free speech on the web, and which has been the place that housed his many supporters, and foxed the old media time and time again. Saar’s new law is concerning many in Israel, and so far, it does not look to be the last of Saar’s moves against the political camp he once dreamed of leading.

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