By Allyn Fisher-Ilan
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel's interior minister, seen as a rival and potential successor to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, announced on Wednesday he was quitting the government, in a move that stunned the political right.
Gideon Sa'ar, 47, widely viewed as a favorite to one day challenge Netanyahu for the leadership of the ruling Likud, told party faithful that he would step down from both the cabinet and parliament after the Jewish New Year later this month.
"I've decided to take a break from politics," said Sa'ar, adding that he wanted to spend more time with his family.
His move came just days after his wife, a TV news anchor, was suspended by government-owned Channel 1 following a row with her bosses, who wanted to limit her political reporting because of a conflict of interest over her husband's career.
But some media pundits suggested he might be quitting over differences with Netanyahu, who is serving a third term as prime minister and whose popularity ratings have just recovered from a sharp fall during a recent 50-day war in the Gaza Strip.
Coalition hardliners had criticized Netanyahu's handling of the conflict, believing he should have been more decisive against Hamas Islamists who control Gaza.
Political sources quoted Sa'ar as saying in July that he had urged Netanyahu to topple Hamas -- something he refused to do.
Israel's Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, an ultra nationalist, said in a statement he regretted Sa'ar's departure, calling it a loss for the government.
But Sa'ar's resignation would not prevent him from one day returning to politics to challenge Netanyahu, who is struggling to overcome feuding within his cabinet over demands to raise defense spending following the Gaza war.
Sa'ar was a cabinet secretary under the late prime minister Ariel Sharon, but later as a lawmaker he opposed Sharon's 2005 withdrawal of Israeli settlers and troops from Gaza. He was education minister from 2009-2013, rising to interior minister in the current cabinet.
He has been a lighting rod for criticism by human rights groups for implementing a tough policy toward African migrants, detaining thousands this year in a move seen as pressuring them to return home.
But his political star had been rising steadily, and he easily outmaneuvered Netanyahu in June when he masterminded a campaign to help a rival of the prime minister become president.
(Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan; Editing by Crispian Balmer)