Analysis |

Netanyahu Is Laying a Trap for Israel's LGBT and Druze Minorities

Netanyahu is already expressing remorse about two discriminatory laws passed last week. But the LGBT and Druze communities shouldn't fall for his promises

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Illustration: A rainbow-colored bull throws Netanyahu, who is dressed like a cowboy, toward two Druze men with clubs.
Illustration. Credit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

Two major, weighty laws with dramatic implications were passed last week by coalition members in the Knesset before the lawmakers departed for their summer recess: the nationalist legislation known as the nation-state law, and the law that continues the discrimination against gay men who seek to bring children into the world in Israel by means of a surrogate mother.

Given the significance of these two laws with respect to the character and identity of the country, on one hand, and to the rights of members of its LGBT community, on the other – one would have expected that a government worthy of its name would have seriously considered every comma and period in the bills. That would certainly be expected of a seasoned prime minister who will soon become the longest-serving premier since the establishment of the state.

But this fourth Netanyahu government has long since gone off the rails. It’s simply not taking its job seriously. What are the signs of its slipshod approach? That just days after the two bills were enacted, when some of their principal victims – members of the Druze community on the one hand, and LGBT individuals, on the other – began to sound howls of protest and block highways, and embarrassed ministers held their head in their hands and wondered “what did we do, for God’s sake” – the prime minister rushed to invite representatives of the two offended groups to conciliatory meetings, and announcing his intention “to convene an urgent discussion.”

The two laws have been passed, although they haven’t yet been officially published in the books, but he is already showing signs of remorse and anxiety, and is committing to remedying the situation and making up for the damage. Like a deceitful construction contractor who scrimped and didn’t properly oversee the work on a building where the balconies collapsed after the residents moved in. Maybe down the road, we will hear Netanyahu explain that the bills escaped his attention because he was so deeply embroiled in deliberations and situation assessments related to the security situation in both the north and the south.

Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett tweeted that a mistake had been made in the “legislative process” in terms of the Druze – considered “good Arabs” by many, due to their army service and outspoken loyalty to the state, as if it were some sort of technical error that must be fixed. And Kulanu party leader Moshe Kahlon admitted outright (on Thursday, on Army Radio) that the nation-state law “was hastily passed” and that a “mistake” had been made in the surrogacy law. There’s no point asking where they were. Now they are “leftists,” an epithet aimed on social media at the president of Israel after he expressed his opposition to the nation-state bill.

At present the ball is back in the prime minister’s court. Fortunately for him, the Knesset just began a break of several months. No one will demand that he act here and now, but every recess is followed by a return to work. In the near future, the premier will meet with the protesters and injured parties, hear their heartrending stories and express his empathy. His wife Sarah will flash them understanding smiles – although this time no pizza will be served.

Netanyahu will no doubt promise that as soon as the Knesset reconvenes, he will “personally” see to it that the injustices are rectified. He will play dumb and roll his eyes, as if he had no idea that the Druze were hurt to the depths of their souls, or that gay men were facing discrimination and collapsing under an inconceivable financial burden, when forced to seek surrogacy options abroad, and have had it. In a properly run country, governments that have caused such major damage in such a short time, to needy populations deserving affirmative action, would have fallen.

The premier must have gnashed his teeth in the face of the global media coverage of local LGBT protests, which subjected his boastful statements in English (and only English) to ridicule and mockery – statements to the effect that Israel is a paradise for the gay and trans community. That may have bothered him most of all. After all, the media is the most important thing of all; the façade is of the essence.

He will survive, he always does. His uncontrollable urge to get the nation-state law passed as a strategic weapon against Bennett and Habayit Hayehudi drove him crazy. And on the way to victory he threw the Druze under the bus. But the Druze are not as colorful and well-connected as the LGBT community. They’ve never been in style, and aren’t today either. Their protest is not going to cross oceans or touch the hearts of people whose governments don’t dance to the tune of benighted rabbis.

The list of the prime minister’s flip-flops and U-turns has been growing. Indeed, there is no longer any point in noting past examples – whether it was the plan with the UN Commissioner for Refugees on resettlement of East African asylum seekers, the establishment of the new public broadcasting corporation, or the agreement regarding the Polish Holocaust law (about which he said he would yet express his criticism). And the list goes on and on.

At least when it comes to issues that involve the country’s defense, he conducts things well. It’s as if the Prime Minister’s Office is occupied by both Dr. Bibi and Mister Netanyahu.

Israelis wave flags during a rally to protest against inequality for the LGBT community in Tel Aviv, Israel, July 22, 2018.Credit: Sebastian Scheiner/AP

Haredim and hot buttons

Representatives of the LGBT and Druze communities would be well advised not to fall into the trap that’s been laid for them. They can come to meetings with the prime minister and play the game, but then they should resume their protests right afterward. Netanyahu is a world champ when it comes to stringing things out, to mocking and misleading. He’s focused on the next news broadcast and the following day’s newspaper. Beyond that, as far as he is concerned, there is nothing.

An amendment to the surrogacy law that is being sponsored by MKs Merav Ben Ari (Kulanu) and Amir Ohana (Likud), which would give equal status to men and women in having the costs of surrogate pregnancies subsidized by the state, will be submitted to the Ministerial Committee for Legislation when the Knesset begins its winter session in early October. The amendment is expected to receive majority support. Even ministers from Habayit Hayehudi, who are represented on that committee by its chairwoman, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, will not dare object, in light of the large majority of party supporters (58 percent, according to an Israel Television News Company poll) who support rectifying the situation.

Ultra-Orthodox legislators, notably the Ashkenazi United Torah Judaism faction, will oppose the new proposal, but this time they will fail.Their supporters don’t attach prime importance to opposing equality between men and women who hope to be parents. It’s not a sacred matter the way Sabbath observance is, not a hot-button issue like their opposition to the drafting of Haredi yeshiva students.

However, when the amendment is submitted for approval in the plenum, if the Knesset has not been dissolved for a new election before that, it will no longer be possible to garner a majority opposed to it by imposing coalition-party discipline on the vote. This story is over.

Inequality is an established fact, a routine part of life, a fate the Israeli public has gotten used to. Gay men have gritted their teeth, taken out another mortgage and gone abroad to have children through a surrogate. As long as nothing changed that situation, it was possible to carry on with this twisted way of life. But from the minute action was taken, in the form of the amendment proposed last week – it brought all the humiliation and discrimination to the fore, in all their ugliness. It did make things easier for families headed by single women, but burst a festering sore among the other gender.

If the law is not amended in the current Knesset, it will come before the next one and the Haredi parties will have to swallow it then.

As to the next election, from time to time, Netanyahu has spoken to the heads of the coalition parties about coming to an agreement on a date and says he doesn’t want to force anyone’s hand. Most of his partners are prepared to go to the polls in March 2019, which would be four years after the last election.

The only one objecting is Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, head of Agudat Yisrael, one of the two Haredi parties that make up the United Torah Judaism faction. He wants to drag things out as long as possible, as close as possible to the deadline for the next election, in early November 2019. Maybe he thinks the Haredim won’t be in the next coalition, and that if they are, their strength is destined to be diluted.

Netanyahu intends to establish a broad coalition and also to include at least one party from the other political camp, meaning in all probability Yesh Atid. Once such a party belongs to the coalition, and no other party is capable of engaging in extortion by threatening to bring down the government – the ultra-Orthodox will have a darker future in store. One way or another, they took their demands to the max in the current Knesset. The time has come to put them in their place.

Avi Gabbay and Tzipi Livni at a press conference in July 2018. Credit: Meged Gozani

Opposition photo-op

The appointment this week of Tzipi Livni as head of the Knesset opposition brought her and the man who appointed her – Labor Party chief Avi Gabbay – together for the first time as a team, standing shoulder to shoulder.

Until recently, such a picture seemed very unlikely, although the gesture in question was seemingly required. Anyone hearing Gabbay expressing his uncensored opinion about the partner he inherited, with her demands, character and conduct, as well as her opinions about his smugness, imperiousness and impatience, found it hard to believe that the two would ultimately find themselves tethered together under a bridal canopy.

But what had to happen did happen: He yielded to the threat of her Hatnuah faction to secede from Zionist Union and run on an independent list or with some other prominent figure in the political arena – a move that would have shattered Labor, relegating it to the status of a party with single-digit seats in the Knesset. In conversations with MKs, Gabbay admitted that this would have been a doomsday scenario.

Livni was not keen on flitting between other parties as she’s done in the last four elections. In retrospect, with 20-20 vision, had Gabbay closed a deal with her immediately after becoming Labor chief, when polls gave him 23 or 24 Knesset seats, he could have had Livni at a bargain price. Now that he’s weak, with 10 fewer projected seats, he had to conduct lengthy and tough negotiations, with one arm tied behind his back.

This partnership is the result of necessity. There is no real trust and very little faith; no fondness, only bitterness and anger. A long year has passed since Gabbay was elected to lead Labor, a year of miscommunication, suspicions and mutual disregard. These residues will not disappear. They’ll crop up at an inconvenient moment, like during an election campaign when any argument or controversy that leaks out is blown out of proportion, making big headlines.

Livni exploited the threat of a future breakup, making sure she was backed by polls showing she could obtain seven or eight Knesset seats if she ran on her own. Gabbay lacked an appropriate response to her threat. And he had asked and received sole leadership, unlike the idyllic partnership Livni had with her comrade Isaac Herzog.

In exchange he granted her something he hadn’t planned on giving – six guaranteed slots in the first 25 candidates on their joint list, with Livni as No. 2, Yoel Hasson as No. 12, and their colleagues in 16th, 21st, 24th and 25th places. In practice, he was only giving her the first three, since the latter ones are theoretical, by current estimates, as he well knows. She knows it too, but what does she care?

So Hasson can sleep in peace. The former head of the Beitar youth movement will be in the next list of candidates alongside the head of the Hatnuah party, herself a former Likud MK and faithful Beitar member. Topping the slate is Gabbay, a former Likud voter. Herzog, a Mapai prince, the most veteran of them all, is leaving the parliament for the Jewish Agency, with hopes of returning either in three years as president or in four years to the 22nd Knesset.

The heir, fulfilling Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones and imbued with the spirit of battle, had hoped Herzog would vacate his seat immediately after the announcement of Livni’s appointment, allowing her to officially assume her post. But that isn’t the Herzog we know. He is cautious and calculated, and will wait for the midnight gong on July 31, just before taking his job at the Agency helm. Who knows what could happen between now and then? Maybe he’ll meet the prime minister and his military secretary for one final briefing.

Netanyahu will be sad to see the door slam shut behind Herzog. He was a convenient opposition leader, to say the least. Livni plans to adopt a different style and substance. She feels the weight of responsibility on her shoulders. She has been given the role of leading Zionist Union ahead of the next election, charged with improving its standing in opinion polls.

Livni has said that she would not object to moving down a slot if the party could recruit a former defense-establishment figure who is an electoral asset. She was talking mainly about former Chief of Staff Benny Gantz. Another name that appears to be a default option is Ehud Barak. As reported in this column last week, Barak supported Livni in his talks with Gabbay, urging him to appoint her as opposition leader even without striking a binding deal between Labor and Hatnuah. Gabbay didn’t even consider that option.

If Gantz does not end up in Zionist Union, Barak may do so if guaranteed a slot, since Gabbay has gotten permission from the Labor Party to bring two people of his choosing into the top-10 list. Nothing has been promised yet, but security issues are expected to play a major part in the next election and Barak, with all his drawbacks, has something to contribute in this area. When he talks, people listen.

Moshe Kahlon's campaign ad. "Kahlon. Your security."Credit: Ofer Vaknin

Billboard boasts

As Avigdor Lieberman drove along the Ayalon Freeway in his car this week, he no doubt saw large billboards on the side. One of the three words on them hit home: “Security” – writ large – and above it, a gigantic image of the likeable face of his cabinet colleague Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon.

Kahlon’s Kulanu party is already in election-campaign mode, the third time in two years. Why now, one wondered. The reply from the minister’s bureau: No one else is doing it and we have a list of proven achievements – 80, according to the staff – that should be brought as one package to the public’s attention. Moreover, the current political arrangement is unstable and the coalition is on its last lap.

Lieberman’s party Yisrael Beiteinu felt the heat. Kahlon was taking over their message, one they feel they own. It’s not collegial, it’s unfair, they believe. It’s a blow under the belt. What would Kulanu’s leader say if two weeks after his campaign was over and his billboards were removed, there were new ones saying, for example: “Lieberman, a treasure for the security of Israel.”

Kulanu’s campaign fit right in with a headline in Yedioth Ahronoth this week, reporting that the finance minister – together with the prime minister, the defense minister and the chief of staff – is preparing a plan for protecting the country from missile damage over the next decade, with an overall investment of 30 billion shekels ($8.24 billion). Anonymous sources in the Defense Ministry called this an “election ploy.” And yet, with perfect timing, the billboards appeared.

Kahlon’s people say that Yisrael Beiteinu should take a deep breath and relax. “We’re not going after their voters,” explained a source. “Most of Lieberman’s voters are veteran Russian and former Soviet Union immigrants, and Kahlon isn’t exactly their second option at the voting booth. Besides, security isn’t only warplanes. It’s a strong economy, low unemployment, a just society, a strong legal system and an independent Supreme Court.”

A few weeks ago Kulanu commissioned an extensive survey of the public’s views of its finance minister. Respondents were asked if the focus of his policies was their well-being, and whether he had “protected” them. People answered whatever they answered, but the concept of “protection” gave rise to the idea of appropriating security to Kahlon on those highway billboards.

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