Israel Netanyahu Challenger

Israeli politician Gideon Saar speaks at the party headquarters in Tel Aviv, Israel, Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021. Saar is promising "new hope" for voters ahead of March elections, and a different approach to relations with the United States after the four-year lovefest between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Donald Trump. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

TEL AVIV, Israel — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s top challenger in upcoming elections is promising a tough line toward Iran and the Palestinians, yet expressed confidence he has the tools to avoid what appears to be a collision course with the incoming Biden administration.

In an interview, Gideon Saar voiced harsh criticism of Netanyahu, accusing the prime minister of turning the ruling Likud party into a “cult of personality” as he faces a corruption trial. While welcoming President Donald Trump’s affinity for Israel, he acknowledged that Netanyahu’s close ties with the divisive U.S. president had alienated many Democrats and vowed to restore traditional bipartisan support for Israel.

“I think I am in a better position than the prime minister to have an effective and true dialogue with President-elect (Joe) Biden and his administration,” he told The

Associated Press.

That could be critical given the deep differences between Israel and Biden, who plans to return to the Iranian nuclear deal and adopt a more balanced approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Saar, who defected from Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party last month, shares the prime minister’s hard-line nationalistic ideology. He is a strong proponent of West Bank settlements, rejects the idea of a construction freeze and favors the eventual annexation of the settlements. He said he would never agree to an independent Palestinian state that includes the removal of settlements.

“I oppose a Palestinian state in the heart of our homeland,” he said. “I think it will not bring peace and it will undermine stability and security in the region.”

These positions will put him at odds with Biden, who — like many of his predecessors — opposes settlement construction and favors a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians. Saar seems to be counting on his reputation as a bridge builder to massage the inevitable disagreements likely to arise.

His demeanor and style are starkly different from Netanyahu’s. While Netanyahu is a firebrand orator, Saar, a lawyer by training, speaks methodically, often pausing to find the right word. Where Netanyahu has gained a reputation for an extravagant lifestyle, Saar conducted Thursday’s interview in the book-lined living room of his high-rise apartment in an upscale Tel Aviv neighborhood. With four children living at home, he lamented the challenges, including Zoom lessons, of raising a blended family during the pandemic.

Saar, 54, entered Israeli politics in 1999 as Cabinet secretary during Netanyahu’s first term. He held key senior Cabinet posts after Netanyahu returned to power in 2009.

But as with many other fast-rising Likud figures, he eventually had a falling out with Netanyahu. Saar took a break from politics in 2014 to spend time with his new wife, TV anchor Geula Even, and their children.

He returned in 2019 but never seemed to repair his ties with Netanyahu. Later that year, Netanyahu trounced him in a party leadership vote, confining Saar to the backbenches.

Since bolting Likud and launching his “New Hope” party last month, Saar has made no secret that their battle is personal. In his inaugural speech, he accused Netanyahu of creating a “cult of personality” — a term he repeated Thursday to describe those who blindly support Netanyahu’s claims that his corruption trial is a conspiracy.

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