Promises, Promises: Israeli Parties Woo LGBT Voters

Senior members of several parties have publicly showed support for the gay community. But when the votes are in, will it even be remembered?

Ilan Lior
Ilan Lior
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Likud's Miri Regev at the Evita Bar. Criticized the stigma of gays being leftist.
Likud's Miri Regev at the Evita Bar. Criticized the stigma of gays being leftist.Credit: Moti Milrod
Ilan Lior
Ilan Lior

Likud MK Miri Regev has been interviewed frequently during this campaign period. Despite that, two days ago was apparently the first time that she gave an interview to a drag queen.

Regev was the third guest to appear in a series of political encounters at Evita, a gay bar in Tel Aviv. She, like others, had come to woo gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgenders. Except for some slight confusion – she addressed the interviewer several times using the male form in Hebrew – Regev did well. She was relaxed and in general was complimented on her behavior.

“There’s a stigma that the right is anti-gays and the left is in favor of gays,” began the interviewer, Ziona Patriot.

“That is precisely the stigma,” Regev agreed, “and unfortunately, part of the media and part of the public still believe this stigma. This stigma is only a stigma. It’s not true. The fact is that there are many gays on the right. This statement is mistaken, it tries to belittle the right. It’s a statement that tries to turn the right into a group that doesn’t enable rights for all human beings. That’s a fundamental mistake.”

Regev wanted to brand herself as representing the gay community. “There’s some kind of feeling that the left has taken possession of the LBGT community. And that’s not true – in Likud there’s a warm home for the community, period. We have proved that during the past six years,” she said to cheers, mainly from the activists of the gay cell in Likud.

“It’s not just talk. I didn’t come here in order to say ‘I’ll do things' [to help the LGBT community]. There are some who only talk. ‘We did, I did.’ I know that not everyone here votes for Likud, I want to say to you: You have a home in Likud, period.”

Regev was preceded in the series of meetings with the LGBT audience at the bar by Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) and Tzipi Livni (Zionist Union). Later this week Meretz leader Zahava Gal-On will also appear there.

The politicians all brag about their activity on behalf of the community and scatter promises. Lapid promised to promote the civil-union draft bill that was blocked by Habayit Hayehudi, and the surrogacy law, whose legislative procedures were not completed. Livni expressed support for government-sponsored educational activity to combat homophobia, and also declared that she would support legislation against gay conversion therapy. Gal-On will likely prove to be a worthy competitor.

The effort to woo the community was also reflected in the political panel held by the Aguda – The Israeli National LGBT Task Force, a month ago.

If in previous years most of the parties made do with sending unimportant representatives to address the community – sometimes even people who were not running for the Knesset – this time they sent the likes of Lapid, Livni, Galon, and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon on behalf of Likud, who expressed clear support for same-sex marriages. For the first time Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent a video clip in which he addressed the members of the gay community.

Incomplete legislation

But reality demonstrates that there is a large gap between promises and deeds. In the outgoing Knesset, legislation designed to promote equal rights for the gay community was completed on only one law out of 30 proposals. Moreover, the only draft bill approved on second and third readings came from the opposition. It was an amendment to the Students’ Rights Law that prohibits discrimination due to sexual proclivity, initiated by Dov Khenin (Hadash).

Most of the other proposals were rejected or stopped at an early stage. Only a few were approved on first reading, which enables the application of what is referred to as the continuity rule, eliminating the need to begin the legislative process from scratch in the next Knesset.

One of the most important laws whose legislation was not completed is an amendment to the 1981 Interpretation Law, which mandates that any legal prohibition against discrimination also include a prohibition against discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual proclivity.

Two proposals by the leaders of the so-called gay lobby in the Knesset, Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz) and Ofer Shelah (Yesh Atid), were combined and approved in the Ministerial Committee for Legislation after first being blocked by the ministers of Yisrael Beiteinu and Habayit Hayehudi. The proposals were then sent on to the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, but for over a year were not discussed, and therefore did not come up for a vote in the plenum.

Draft bills designed to promote equal rights for same-sex couples were also blocked in the outgoing Knesset: Two of them, entitled “civil union” – one initiated by Stav Shaffir (Zionist Union) and the second by Ruth Calderon and Aliza Lavie (Yesh Atid) – did not overcome even the first hurdle. Shaffir’s bill, which pertains to same-sex marriages only, was rejected in the Ministerial Committee for Legislation and later in the plenum as well, when even Yesh Atid opposed it. The Yesh Atid proposal did not even come up for a vote due to a veto by Habayit Hayehudi and Yisrael Beiteinu.

Other legislation initiated by Shelly Yacimovich (Zionist Union) to introduce civil marriage in the country was placed on the Knesset agenda, but did not come up for a vote. The Justice Ministry distributed a memo outlining the “shared life” (a form of civil union) draft bill formulated by Tzipi Livni, but it also did not advance due to coalition constraints.

Another law that was halted midway is the surrogacy law – proposed legislation drafted by Yael German (Yesh Atid) that for the first time would allow surrogacy procedures in Israel for same-sex couples. The proposal was blocked at first by Habayit Hayehudi, but in the end was approved in the Ministerial Committee for Legislation and on its first reading in the Knesset. Pressure by Yesh Atid, which threatened to retaliate by blocking some Habayit Hayehudi legislation, led to its approval. However, the legislative process was not completed; in the next Knesset it will likely continue from the place where it was interrupted.

'Unique' campaign

Despite this gloomy picture, or perhaps because of it, in this election the LGBT community seems to be playing a significant role. Not only are the various parties wooing its vote – the community itself seems to be making a greater effort than ever to exploit its electoral strength. For example, earlier this month a major campaign was launched by the Aguda, calling on people to vote only for parties that promise full equal rights for the community. The Aguda says that hundreds of thousands of people have been exposed to the campaign to date.

According to the campaign head, Noam Harel, “We have reached a point in the life of the gay community, in the lives of citizens of the gay community, which is hundreds of thousands of people, who say: Enough. It’s unconscionable that we have equal obligations but not equal rights – not in marriage, not in adopting children, not in surrogacy, not in the Interpretation Law, not in laws that protect the transgender community.

“We’re living in 2015, the entire Western world around us is going forward and we are stagnant,” Harel asserted. “This is a campaign that is quite unique in its scope. We are calling on the gay community to mobilize, because we see unprecedented mobilization all around us. We are calling on Israeli citizens to remember us, the gay community, when they go to the polls.”

Actually, perhaps it was Habayit Hayehudi that best served the LGBT community in this election. The video clip it publicized before the primary, in which party candidates are seen rejecting same-sex marriage out of hand, aroused a widespread public discussion and a harsh protest. Members of the gay community, many of them activists on behalf of other parties, broke up several meetings of Habayit Hayehudi and brought the issue to the headlines.

In general, since that video, party leaders and candidates for the Knesset have not been able to avoid paying some attention to the LGBT community and its battle for equal rights.

To date only two declared gays have served in the Knesset, both from Meretz. The first was Uzi Even, who entered the parliament in 2002. He was followed by Nitzan Horowitz. In the wake of Horowitz’s decision not to run this time, two declared gays are hoping to serve in the next Knesset. Likud boasts of the candidacy of Amir Ohana, chairman of the gay cell in the party, but he was elected to the unrealistic 32nd slot on the slate. In Yesh Atid the chairwoman of the gay cell, Zehorit Sorek, is in 19th place, which according to the opinion polls is not realistic.

Despite Regev’s declarations, Likud receives a low grade in the Aguda report that examined activity in the outgoing Knesset; Likud was ranked ninth out of 13 parties. The report, prepared by the association’s research department and its political arm, Otzma, ranked the MKs and the factions according to legislative initiatives, votes, parliamentary questions, calls to order, attendance in committees and membership in the gay lobby.

Meretz took first place by a large margin, followed by Hadash, Labor, Yesh Atid and Hatnuah. The Arab parties Balad, Ra’am and Ta’al, along with Kadima, Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu, received a very low grade. At the other extreme were Shas, Habayit Hayehudi and United Torah Judaism, which received a negative grade due to their efforts to halt legislative procedures favoring the gay community.

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