On August 6, 2009, five days after two people were killed and 15 injured in a shooting at a gay youth center in Tel Aviv, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with members of the LGBT community.
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“I know the community has special needs,” he said after the shooting at Bar Noar. “I promise you that we are attentive and that, together with the cabinet ministers, I will promote these important things, some of which I learned today.”
The axiom “actions speak louder than words” applies to many of Netanyahu’s statements. But when it comes to the LGBT community, not only does the prime minister not walk the walk, he also rarely talks the talk – at least not in Hebrew.
I do not recall Netanyahu ever saying “homosexual” or “lesbian” in Hebrew. I do, however, recall at least 10 instances in which Netanyahu spoke about “gays,” in English, in his American accent. It wasn’t in the Knesset or at a cabinet meeting, but in speeches he gave at the AIPAC conference and before the U.S. Congress and the UN General Assembly.
In Israel, Netanyahu flees from LGBT issues as though they were on fire, but abroad he enjoys using the community for propaganda purposes in his war against a nuclear Iran. In almost every speech he has made in the United States or Europe, Netanyahu points out that in Iran they hang gay people in the public square, while in Israel we have gay pride parades.
So does that mean that Israeli gays should keep silent and just be thankful they weren’t born in Tehran? It’s not totally clear whether Netanyahu has internalized that the LGBT struggle in Israel relates to the most basic rights of every person.
In a recorded statement Netanyahu sent to be broadcast at a ceremony marking two years since the Bar Noar shooting, the prime minister referred to sexual preference as a different “viewpoint,” as though this were a debate between left-wingers and right-wingers. He said there was “no room for discrimination” against members of the LGBT community, but has done nothing to reduce discrimination.
A few years ago, a so-called pride faction of Likud was set up. On its Facebook page, Likud members boast about the party’s liberalism and point (justifiably) to the records of Likud legislators like Gideon Sa’ar, Limor Livnat, Yuval Steinitz and Moshe Ya’alon, who have worked to promote gay rights. Benjamin Netanyahu was not on the list.
A week ago I asked the Prime Minister’s Bureau about Netanyahu’s views on a bill granting income tax credits to same-sex couples. I received quite a laconic answer: “He supports it.” When I asked whether he supports the version of the bill put forth by Habayit Hayehudi or the more liberal one sponsored by Yesh Atid, I received no response.
It’s not clear what Netanyahu is worried about. Why isn’t he raising his voice on an issue that is important to so many Israelis and a large part of his electorate? It’s easy to be photographed in the situation room in Jerusalem during a snowstorm, or to bang on the table and issue directives. But true leadership means courageously taking action on controversial issues. Not evading, zigzagging or hiding behind the Likud ministers who live in Tel Aviv.