The Pride of Gedera Moves to the National Stage

Gila Gamliel's strong showing in Likud poll puts her on political map

Chaim Gamliel is chairman of the Likud branch in Gedera and the brother of Gila Gamliel, who placed 11th in last week's Likud primaries as the party's student representative. He looks tired, but content. "How would I call it? It isn't exactly a family victory; it's more of a sense of satisfaction," he says, sitting in the yard of his sister's and mother's small old house in the rundown Shechunat Haivrim (blind quarter) in Gedera. "I can't describe it. Every candidate walks in with his media advisers, and Gila came with her brothers. Let's just say that we brought the floor, but she did it; the public was excited about her. What can I say? It's a Cinderella story, it's the product of a lot of volunteer work, without any money, without anything, from a little party branch that has 80 central committee members, most of them Yemenites. So this one stands up, whose brothers had recognized her ability to go up against anyone else, because she had earned it. It had nothing to do with favors," he asserts.

The surge of visitors does not let up. The phone never stops ringing. One after another, the well-wishers fulfill their obligation to the Knesset member-to-be: Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Finance Minister Silvan Shalom, chairman of the Likud branch and deputy mayor of Raanana Uzi Cohen, and others. "Even the people who didn't support her are calling now," said Chaim, smiling at the irony.

"Arik is charming," gushes Gila Gamliel, expressing her opinion in a lighthearted, affable tone. He congratulated her for her success, and apologized for not having come to the primaries at the Tel Aviv Exhibition Grounds. He was afraid that his heavy Shin Bet security entourage would have put a damper on the revelry, he said. He was very proud of her, and promised that after a few days' rest he would have all the new candidates over for a talk.

Bespectacled and slender, deliberately ungroomed, careful to maintain a simple, childish look, Gamliel takes in with unconcealed satisfaction the shows of affection and obsequiousness that political triumphs induce. Her brother is convinced that she earned the highest place in the women's slot partly because she succeeded in not being identified with any particular camp. "On this matter, she is parve, but we wanted her. We will also make sure that she becomes a minister," says Uzi Cohen, a leader of what party activists call the central committee's "Yemenite Mafia," which represents the most right-wing branch of the Likud. The group supported Avigdor Lieberman when he was still in the party, and are perennial cronies of Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Yemenite lobby notched a few gains on the balance sheet this week with three Yemenites in realistic places, according to Cohen's blunt calculations. "Until now, we didn't have anything but Tzachi Hanegbi, who's only half Yemenite," he says. "Now full-fledged Yemenites like Gila Gamliel and Michael Ratzon are in, and if the Likud wins 45 seats, six Yemenites will enter the Knesset - a spectacular achievement!"

Overnight, Gamliel, 28, has become the pride of the disadvantaged neighborhood in which she was born and raised - the crowning glory of the emotionally-charged political struggles and power plays waged by her brothers on Gedera's local front. She is a neighbor of blind residents of a deprived neighborhood, who had won on their behalf the spoils of office; a fresh face, a symbol of femininity and Sephardism on the Likud list; and a fig leaf of ethnicity and populism all rolled into one.

The screen door that is meant to keep out the mosquitoes swayed in the breeze. Walking through a cracked door from which the letters "N - Nah- Nahma - Nahman" had long ago peeled off, Gamliel makes sure to kiss the mezuza. The tiny kitchen that doubles as a living room has a simple sofa and small table. Her Libyan-born mother, heavyset and hard of hearing, walks around the house in a flowery dress, enthusiastically relating that since the early morning, she had been wished a `Mazal Tov' everywhere she went, but she still does not know quite why.

"So how are those Likud sharks?" burbles a pair of visitors, relatives from Gedera. Gamliel's uncle brought her a makeup kit ("They know I won't put on makeup; it's only a token gift," she laughs). "Where's the minister?" someone else kids, putting his arm around her shoulder. "There's time yet for that," she responds without missing a beat, an acquired expression of self-confidence on her face. "It is utter joy to see her like this," her ecstatic sister-in-law declares.

One of Gedera's largest clans

The Gamliels are one of the largest clans in Gedera: worth at least two Knesset seats, Gamliel jokes. The tribe includes lawyers, academics, a deputy local council head, and even a Shas MK, Arieh Gamliel. And now, it appears, a Likud MK as well. Local patriotism and strong ethnic belonging find their way into nearly every conversation. "Everyone knows everyone else," explains a neighbor, who happens to be a local Likud activist. "All of the Yemenites are united, all of them chew khat. Things that they stopped doing in Yemen our young people are doing here now with a great deal of pleasure. Activists get together from all over Israel to smoke nargila. How far away are Gedera, Ekron, Rosh Ha'ayin and Mazkeret Batya? They're all pretty close. Everyone is there for everyone else."

Gamliel's neighbors eagerly read everything written about her in the newspapers, cling to her triumph, and are infuriated by what they see as attempts to smear her good name. One particularly sensitive point is the doubt expressed by an Army Radio reporter regarding her academic education. "There is a left-wing bias," says her neighbor, Matzliah Shavit, who acts as if she was personally insulted.

"The media doesn't stop saying that people were elected to the Likud who can't read or write. Just who are they talking about? Who doesn't know how to read and write?" he fumes. "If she weren't talented and had the ability to attract people like a magnet, she wouldn't have been elected as chairperson of the Student Union. Students are no dummies. They don't vote for people for no good reason, right? Yes, there is a local pride. They say that the Torah will come forth from the children of the poor. Gila and her brothers are examples of people who pulled themselves up by the bootstraps and made it."

Another neighbor remembers the time when the Gamliels lived in a hut - eight people in two rooms, a kitchen and a bathroom. Those were the days of the Mapai, when they housed with all the blind in a single tenement house, in the same way that the government assigned immigrants from Yemen, Iraq and Libya to their own neighborhoods and moshavim. "That's what Mapainik rule was like," says Shavit, sounding fed up.

Gamliel's family was the only one in the neighborhood that did not have a blind family member. Her father immigrated to Israel from Yemen in Operation Magic Carpet in 1949, and met her mother, who came from Tripoli, in Gedera. He was an employee of Bezeq, a longtime member of Herut, an admirer of former prime minister Menachem Begin. When Gamliel was nine, her parents divorced and her father remarried and moved to Kiryat Malachi. Her mother took ill "and didn't function so well," recalls the neighbor. "The children were neglected and would sometimes ask the neighbors for handouts," but over the years they learned, worked, extricated themselves from poverty, married and built themselves fine homes.

"I remember her when she was little, the youngest child of older parents," says a reminiscing neighbor, who herself comes from a family of 11. "She would always help the blind people, a wonderful girl. She deserves this. She isn't condescending, didn't grow up with a silver spoon. What a jump she's made, what a leap. It's in her genes. Everyone in her family is talented. Sometimes I feel as if it happened to me. We like her very much. Not everyone can be a member of Knesset, even though it isn't as high up as we used to think."

Her family decided to send Gamliel into political orbit prior to the primaries before the February 1999 elections. Three months earlier, her uncle, Hovav Gamliel, had been defeated by a slim margin in the election for the head of the local council in Gedera. His campaign was led by Gila's brother Chaim.

"We were frustrated," he said. "Let's be candid. The Knesset election was coming up, and that's what gave us the strength. Gila surprised us all with her success in the elections for the Student Union. We said that this girl has a talent for leadership; let's give her a stage so that people will get to know her. We'll run her as a candidate, see what happens. She's our little sister, we always looked after her. She succeeded beyond our expectations - in those earlier primaries she already came in 24th."

The internal squabbles among members of the Likud branch and Eliyahu Radia, the newly elected head of the local council, have continued unabated. Radia ran on an independent list in the last election after the Likud branch did not choose him as its candidate for council head, although he did receive the support of the party's national leadership. Radia has aroused the ire of veteran Gederans. He drew most of his electoral strength from the new neighborhoods, which are populated by young lower-middle-class couples who sold small apartments in cities along the edge of the metropolitan area - Rishon Lezion, Rehovot, Rosh Ha'ayin and Ashdod - to buy townhouses on rezoned Israel Lands Administration land on the outskirts of Gedera.

These neighborhoods are well-groomed - usually at the initiative of land developers, who are compelled by law to invest in infrastructure as a pre-condition for construction. Their well-shined look emphasizes the neglect and wretchedness of the city center. "Radia is a native of the neighborhood," fumes Gamliel's neighbor. "His father is blind, but look how everything looks here, all broken down - no sidewalks, no benches for the blind. He doesn't promote any new initiatives. He made his way up top, and forgot us."

A safe bet

New elections are about to be held in Gedera. Last month, Likud members voted for Chaim and Yoel Gamliel, Gila's brothers, as members of the party's central committee, to help their sister in her primaries campaign. Her success in the previous primaries had made her a safe bet, and led to an increased enlistment of her supporters in Gedera and among the 600 Yemenite members of the Likud central committee. The local Likud branch underwent a facelift, and Radia lost many of his supporters. Gamliel became the trump card of her brothers and their supporters. Not only do they believe they weakened Radia in the local branch, but also through their sister they broke into the national arena.

Gamliel prefers not to dwell on descriptions of her childhood or of the local political arena. Unconsciously, she tries to evade stereotypes of poverty, ethnicity, parochial identity. "I've always been optimistic, always believed I would succeed. That's who I am," she repeats with quiet amiability, with a drop of "regal" distance already creeping into her speech.

She attributes her success to a great deal of systematic work over the past four years. She maintains continuous contact with 2,700 members of the central committee, never missing a wedding, birthday, funeral or hospital visit. Her brother Chaim, "who knows the Likud from top to bottom," was always telling her not to rely on the "commanding officers" but to be in personal contact with members of the central committee. She cuts across factions not only in her party, she says, but also in the student realm. Students identified with Labor and Meretz supported her in the Likud primaries, wanting to crown a member of Knesset of their own. Indeed, she views legislation to improve the lot of students as one of her primary targets.

She assures that as an MK, her political agenda would address matters of domestic policy, feminism, equal rights for Arabs, and aid to the socio-economically deprived, but mainly the interests of the middle class, which is trampled under by every economic crisis. She favors a free market, but yet to sort out how strongly she feels about privatization, for instance. She is in favor of affirmative action and the "empowerment of women." She also says she would, with reservation, join struggles on behalf of homosexuals, but would presumably be restrained by fellow party members. Gamliel is traditional, but not observant. She accepts the fashionable permissiveness in relations between women and men as a need of the hour, but at the same time, does not concede the sanctity of family and marriage.

Gamliel is not bothered by the fact that at 28 she is unmarried. There is a price to be paid by choosing a political career. Her brothers do not pressure her to get married ("This is a very open family," they say), but it is clear that she will soon have to devote some thought to it. "Personally, I am not troubled by it. It seems like a major project to me," she says, laughing. She considers herself a representative of the Likud's young voters in the Knesset, and, like them, stands at the forefront of the new conservatism, with social horizons that are seemingly wide open. But when all is said and done, the new openness does not dispel deeply rooted images and prejudices.

The other side of the coin is a decidedly right-wing political outlook. "I locate myself at the right wing of the Likud," she says. "This is the trend among most young people." The lack of clear-cut positions is what, in her opinion, shattered the Likud in the last election. She opposes the establishment of a Palestinian state. Period. "I have nothing against Sharon or anything," she hastens to clarify. The central committee adopted an unequivocal decision to which Sharon is obligated, in spite of all his declarations, she adds, a trifle hesitant. Nevertheless, hearing the qualifications she voices, it is easy to understand that there is no chance of establishing a Palestinian state, even according to Sharon's line of reasoning.

"You have to understand the mentality. We live in the Middle East - the only democratic country in an ocean of dictatorships. It is impossible to beautify the situation and to look at the other side through Western eyes," she says.

Her friend Sagiv Asoulin - a thin, 24-year-old with a long ponytail - succeeded Gamliel as chairman of the Student Union at Ben-Gurion University. He permits himself to be more blunt. "I'm righter than right, am closer to the legacy of Gandhi [assassinated MK Rehavam Ze'evi]," he says. He is not in favor of transfer only because he does not believe it is realistic. In his opinion, terror has to be put down in any way possible. Arafat has to be either liquidated or deported, like any other garden-variety terrorist. Sharon is doing the right thing, feels Asoulin. You don't always have to listen only to what Sharon says, he suggests. Gila Gamliel does not protest.