COVID-19 infection rates may be skyrocketing and tension on Israel’s northern border increasing, but who has been the star of the evening news? Not the country’s newly crowned coronavirus czar or army chief of staff. Instead, it has been Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, with thousands protesting outside is home last night.
When Ohana made his debut on the Israeli political stage in 2015, the fact he was the first openly gay right-wing legislator made the headlines. These days, though, the fact he lives with a male partner and their two children is largely irrelevant to his current status.
Now, it’s his role as unrelenting Netanyahu enforcer – and up-and-coming Likud star – that’s drawing the spotlight to the 44-year-old minister. Indeed, the protest scheduled for Tuesday evening was not outside the prime minister’s residence, but in front of Ohana’s Tel Aviv apartment building, in a rally against police brutality that ended in violence, with at least five being wounded after being attacked by what eyewitnesses said were right-wing activists who infiltrated the march.
Ohana was featured in an audio tape just leaked to the media in which he unloaded his frustrations on the Jerusalem police and other Jerusalem officials, telling them in no uncertain terms they were failing to crack down on the escalating demonstrations taking place regularly in front of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s official residence in the capital.
“We can’t go on with this mess. We cannot continue with this anarchy,” Ohana ranted, about the protests attended by thousands of angry Israelis. He called on local officials and the police to “ban this whole thing,” vowing to defy court decisions that upheld the protests as free expression.
“I want to challenge the ruling of the court,” he said. “I don’t know how to explain to the public why we ban prayer and cultural performances, and don’t ban [these protests].”
Behind his given reasons for objecting to the protests – ostensible concern for the well-being of Netanyahu’s “poor” neighbors and the spread of the coronavirus in the crowd – Ohana’s outrage is seen by his many critics as another act in his ongoing role as Netanyahu family loyalist and designated lightning rod for public rage that would otherwise be directed at Netanyahu.
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It’s a role he has been seen as playing since he was plucked from the backbenches of Likud by the prime minister and vaulted into the position of justice minister in the spring of 2019, after Netanyahu fired Ayelet Shaked.
Ohana was not unqualified for the post: he has a background in law, as well as stints in the Military Police and the Shin Bet security service. But none of that was seen as the reason he leapfrogged over numerous senior party members and was handed the key ministry.
Instead, the choice was greeted by pundits like Haaretz writer Yossi Verter as proof that the newly minted minister’s “canine-like loyalty and total obsequiousness to Netanyahu ... on the one hand, and venom toward the Supreme Court and institutional gatekeepers on the other, paid off big-time.”
It was a move arguably made in the hope of having Ohana strategically in place pending a successful amendment of an immunity law or passage of an administrative override clause that would prevent Netanyahu from facing trial while serving as prime minister.
Political realities made that an impossible dream: the justice system moved ahead full steam despite alleged efforts by Likudniks to derail it. But even if they couldn’t stop the trial, Ohana did his best to contribute to the pro-Netanyahu camp’s efforts to undermine public confidence in the justice system, calling for “investigations of the investigators” who had left the prime minister in the dock.
Justice Minister Ohana stood prominently at Netanyahu’s right hand at the press conference before the opening of his corruption trial at Jerusalem District Court on May 24, as the premier lambasted the “polluted and fabricated” investigations that led to an “absurd and fabricated indictment.”
But attacking legal elites as subverting democracy is one thing. Discrediting the entire mass of demonstrators in front of the PM’s Balfour Street residence as “anarchists” and “leftists,” and urging police to deal with them more “intensively and aggressively,” is another.
While some of the protesters are indeed hard-core, anti-Netanyahu activists, a large number are seemingly deeply frustrated, young middle-class Israelis, economically devastated by the COVID-19 crisis and expressing their pain over receiving no assistance from the government.
If Ohana’s goal was to draw fire away from Netanyahu onto himself – and there was some speculation that Ohana might have been behind the leak – there are signs it has succeeded, like the abovementioned protest outside his apartment.
Several senior police officials appear to be as unhappy with Ohana as the demonstrators are, complaining to journalists behind the scenes that Ohana is blatantly wielding his power to appoint the next police commissioner to push for banning or forcibly relocating the protests – defying court rulings allowing the demonstrations, and against the advice of police legal advisers.
Ohana initiated a clause in a surrogacy bill allowing men to use domestic surrogates (his own children were delivered by a surrogate mother in the United States), which would have allowed same-sex couples to become parents without having to travel abroad – a clause that was eliminated at the behest of Likud’s Haredi coalition partners.
The defeat came with a promise from Netanyahu’s inner circle promising that the matter would be revisited in the next parliamentary session – which hasn’t happened as of yet.
When former Education Minister Rafi Peretz endorsed the long-discredited practice of “conversion therapy” a year ago, Ohana spoke out against him, responding sharply that “sexual orientation does not require correction or conversion. Ignorance and prejudice require conversion.”
Then in January, when Peretz was asked what he would do if one of his children were gay, he answered: “Thank God, my children grew up in a natural and healthy way.” Ohana called Peretz’ words “wretched,” tweeting: “I grew up in a healthy, good and loving family, as are my children and the children of many LGBT people from all parts of the country, from all over the political spectrum.”
Last week, Ohana once again broke with the coalition on an issue affecting the LGBTQ community, voting for the bill – initiated by opposition lawmaker Merav Michaeli – that seeks to outlaw conversion therapy.
He won’t face that problem anymore. Ohana announced Monday that he is giving up his Knesset seat under the so-called Norwegian Law, which allows another party member to take his place in the Knesset while he remains in the cabinet. While he says it’s so he can focus on his ministerial duties, it will, conveniently, end any future situations in which he must choose between coalition solidarity and advocating for the LGBTQ community.
On a deeper level, some say Ohana’s ongoing attempt to balance a hard-right political persona with pride in his identity carries inconsistencies that aren’t easily resolved.
His rising star is seen as both a beacon for the mainstreaming of LGBTQ identity and a tragedy for the progressive politics that many in the community hold dear. To them, Ohana’s uncompromising position on issues like the nation-state law and annexation is untenable. It’s not just that he enjoys new rights for his minority while opposing full rights for other groups; it’s his ongoing attack on the executive branch of government that granted him those rights.
“He’s so outspoken against judicial activism, but our rights are because of judicial decisions,” says Prof. Aeyal Gross, a law scholar at Tel Aviv University who taught Ohana when the minister was a student at the College of Management Academic Studies. “I’m sure Ohana would prefer the legislature to recognize rights rather than the courts. But the reality is that the legislature didn’t give them to us – the courts did.”
As disagreeable as Gross finds his former student’s politics, he says it would be a mistake to underestimate Ohana. His former professor calls him “intelligent, smart, eloquent.” While deeply partisan and pro-Netanyahu, Gross says, Ohana is a true ideological believer, not just a political loyalist, and shouldn’t be dismissed as the prime minister’s yes-man or lapdog.
While Ohana may not be an obvious choice or the current front-runner to someday inherit the Likud leadership from Netanyahu, Gross believes he “will be a very strong contestant.”