In one of my meetings with MK Amir Ohana (Likud), held in the living room of his Tel Aviv home, our phones lit up simultaneously with breaking news: the “Hebron shooter,” Sgt. Elor Azaria, had just been admitted to prison, after his conviction for shooting a prone and wounded Palestinian following an attack on Israeli soldiers last year. I asked Ohana for his take on the affair.
“Basically, a terrorist who is out to commit murder, whether of civilians or soldiers, and comes out of the attack arena alive – that’s a hitch. A ‘neutralized’ terrorist is a dead terrorist. At the same time, according to the court, Elor did it 11 minutes later and in a situation in which he [did not need to] fear the terrorist. I, of course, think that if he was concerned [the terrorist] was liable to blow himself up, he had to shoot him. But the court didn’t believe [Azaria], so I can’t second-guess it.
“Now I will tell you why the great majority of the Israeli public – 75 percent, according to the opinion polls – think Elor should be pardoned. First, because the shooter is a soldier doing compulsory service – he didn’t choose to be there and he is an outstanding fighter with an unblemished record. Second, the identity of the person who was shot: a terrorist who had just tried to murder soldiers.”
Forget the public for a minute. What would you have done?
“I would not have waited 11 minutes. I would have shot him in the first second.”
Guests in the country
Ohana launched his political career in Likud, in 2011, and entered the Knesset five years later, following the resignation of Silvan Shalom, having been awarded the 32nd spot on the Likud slate after garnering 1,198 votes in the party’s Tel Aviv district in the party primary.
Intelligent and articulate, and a lawyer by profession, he’s a prolific giver of interviewers. He’s also known for his absolute loyalty to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who, unusually, was the veteran MK who made the ritual welcoming speech for the new member of the legislature upon Ohana’s induction into the Knesset. Ohana and his male partner are the fathers of 2-year-old twin boys, who were born to a surrogate mother in the United States.
Ohana recently became head of the Knesset’s joint committee on the nation-state law – formed from both the Constitution, Law and Justice and House committees – whose task is to move the controversial bill through the legislative process. “Everyone I’ve met with – jurists, academics, opposition and coalition – all agree that this is the most important piece of legislation in the history of the State of Israel,” Ohana says. “The arguments are over the formulation. And to get legislation of this sort passed, a special committee was formed, rather than, as might have been expected, having it handled by the Law Committee.”
Was that done in order to block Law Committee member [Likud MK] Benny Begin, who objects to the bill?
“Not a correct claim. It’s true the Law Committee is the natural place to deal with a Basic Law, but its agenda is already overloaded. If we’d asked that committee to advance the bill, the process would have lasted for many years.”
A somewhat different account is provided by Ohana’s Likud colleague MK Yoav Kish, who as chairman of the Knesset House Committee was also a candidate to lead the joint body: “The Law Committee is not in Likud’s hands, and we wanted this bill to be in our hands. So a joint committee, more convenient for us in terms of its members, was set up.”
The law would relegate a particular population group to second-class status. It says we Jews will be the world’s best hosts, but we are the owners here.
“Correct. That’s the truth.”
Your parents immigrated to Israel from Morocco in the 1950s. Mine, too, by the way. I don’t think you or I can say to someone whose grandfather was born here, “Buddy, you’re a guest.”
“I can. Because I am not an individual: I speak in the name of the people. And historically, the Jewish people has no other home than the Land of Israel. What is a Palestinian people? What sets it apart? Does it have its own language? Its own currency? No. Therefore, I can go to Mohammed and tell him, ‘Even though your grandfather, and maybe your grandfather’s grandfather, were born here – this is my country.’”
‘Give back Kiryat Gat?’
I first met Ohana at an LGBT gathering ahead of the 2015 election, where he insisted on taking the stage to greet the community ahead of the other members of the panel discussion in which he took part, attaching himself to a senior Likud figure, Moshe Ya’alon, who was defense minister at the time. I saw him a second time – he was now an MK – away from the Knesset, at a rally in the West Bank settlement of Amona, shortly before its evacuation last February, where MKs from Likud and the religious-Zionist Habayit Hayehudi party outdid each other in promising the settlers that Amona would not be evacuated.
“You can’t sever Judea and Samaria from the Land of Israel,” he asserts, referring to the West Bank. “Someone says to me, ‘I’ve never visited there in my life, give it back so we can have peace already.’ Well, first of all, you’ve never visited Kiryat Gat, either, so maybe we should give back Kiryat Gat? Second, what kind of peace will there be here? The kind there was before 1967? After all, there’s always a reason for terrorism. You install metal detectors [at the entrance to the Temple Mount], you get the terrorist attack at Halamish. What was there before the metal detectors? The occupation, and so on. Anything rather than say that what we have here is some sort of cultural murderousness.”
What do you mean by that term?
“Who is responsible for the acts of murder and massacre in the world over the past 50 years? Muslims. Not in 100 percent of the cases, but certainly in a clear majority of more than 90 percent. That is cultural murderousness. We’re afraid to say it, because it will sound racist. Every culture has its own traits, right? Some of the cultural traits we see here are honor murders and a jihadist war in which heretics have to be killed. So, should we ignore that? Should we say, ‘No, it’s us’? Even if Israel were to evaporate from the world, there would still be wars in the Middle East and they’ll slaughter one another.
“The Arabs did not accept the declaration of the state. From the first instant, they fought and tried to disrupt its establishment, and they are continuing to do so today,” he adds. “The affable [Joint List MK] Aida Touma-Suliman – not [her party colleague] Haneen Zoabi, right? – says: ‘I will fight for the establishment of a Palestinian state. But even after a Palestinian state is established, I will fight for Israel to be a state of all its citizens.’ So much for your question of why a nation-state law is needed.”
Ohana is trying to position himself as being close to Netanyahu, and his confidants confirm that the prime minister holds the young lawmaker in high regard. Ohana and governing coalition whip MK David Bitan (Likud) were the first to come to Netanyahu’s defense on television and at public events following the signing of the agreement by which the prime minister’s former chief of staff, Ari Harow, turned state’s evidence in two corruption cases against the premier, while Likud ministers were still bewildered and hesitant.
I put it to Ohana that defending Netanyahu is a good strategy. “Look,” he replies, “Netanyahu, with all due respect to him, will not decide whether I’ll be a member of the next Knesset or not. That will be decided by Likud party members.”
When would you feel you could no longer defend Netanyahu?
“Not every indictment is grounds for the prime minister’s resignation. It depends very much on what the indictment is and on the nature of the evidence. Cigars and champagne are one thing, and something that has to do with submarines – something I don’t want even to think about – is something else.”
What characterizes you as a gay right-winger?
“Homosexuality occupies a certain aspect in the totality of who I am, but it’s not a dominant element. It’s not 80 percent, it’s 20 percent.”
Are there more members of the LGBT community on the right than we think or know about?
“Yes. The real question is how many gay people define their homosexuality as a dominant element of their personality. Those people will probably not find themselves on the [political] right.”
How should the state act toward the LGBT community? Are you in favor of civil marriage?
“Yes, of course. Surrogate mothers, civil marriage, adoption – the answer to all of them is yes. But I am also practical. I understand that in the current constellation, in which the Haredim [ultra-Orthodox] have veto power, it makes no difference who the prime minister is. For example, about two weeks after I entered the Knesset, I submitted a bill to add gender identity to the components of hate crimes, because of attacks on transgender people. Of course, we got the agreement of Likud and Kulanu in the ministerial committee, we got tacit agreement from Shas and Habayit Hayehudi – that is, they would not turn it into a make-or-break issue – but [United Torah Judaism Chairman Yaakov] Litzman slammed the brakes on us.”
Maybe Litzman was just being honest, as opposed to the others? Maybe your pals in Habayit Hayehudi and Likud are displaying empathy, but at the moment of truth will vote against bills that would make you a citizen with equal rights?
“I think it was a bit easier with [Habayit Hayehudi leader and Education Minister] Naftali Bennett. I don’t think, I know. A change is taking place – among Haredim, too, certainly in the religious-Zionist movement and even more within society in general – and another glass ceiling is being broken all the time. Those changes in society will bring the legislature in their wake. You can yell ‘Religious, Haredim, homophobes’ all day. Where will it get you?”
Ohana is now leveraging his revolt – his threat not to participate in votes with the coalition because of the state’s stance on the High Court of Justice case concerning adoptions of children by members of the LGBT community – as a decisive element in the state’s later revision of its position, so as not to opposition such adoptions. “I was severely punished for what I did: I was removed from the most prestigious committee, and anyone who knows me knows how important that is to me. Despite what the cynics thought – that I chose the timing because it was two weeks before the Knesset recessed – the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee does meet during the recess, and now the Social Affairs Ministry has revised its position [on the adoption issue].”
Well, they came under fierce public attack [for their previous opposition], and not necessarily because of you.
“I didn’t say it was only because of me, but definitely also because of me.”
Are you familiar with the psychological explanations for the existence of gay people on the right?
“Yes, the battered woman syndrome, and all that. Beyond the fact that it’s more important for there to be gay people on the right than on the left, because the left is already filled to the brim and there’s still work to be done on the right, in my opinion gays on the right like themselves more than gays on the left, because it’s important for them to change the [public’s] approach.
“In addition, I don’t see how anyone who considers human rights important, not to mention LGBT rights, can say, ‘Yes, the establishment of the 22nd Arab state is the answer for the Palestinian LGBT community, because, after all, the 22nd state will certainly be so dramatically different from the other 21.’ That’s bull. So much hypocrisy and so much unwillingness to stick your head out and look in the mirror.”
This whole militant approach, the lobby you formed to encourage the public’s possession of weapons – could it be that they’re your way, as a gay man, to declare that you’re strong in Likud, where being strong is a way of life?
“No way. I’ve been sleeping with a toy pistol under my pillow since I was nine. At age 14 I got a permit for an air gun. My approach stems from reality, not from my sexual orientation.”
Why have you slept with a pistol since you were nine?
“Because I liked guns as a child. Some children like cars, some children like dolls. I liked pistols.”