Miki Zohar (37, married, a father of four, and a resident of Kiryat Gat) feels an injustice has been done to him. “I want people to respect me,” says the Likud lawmaker. “I want them to like me. I want bridges in Israel to be named for us, I want schools to be named for us, I want streets to be named for us. That would make me happy, because I have ended the chapter in my life of just making money.”
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Miki, why is it that in every interview you talk about having made money?
“I want people to know I’ve made sacrifices in order to enter politics. That’s what I want people to understand. Because what they are doing to me is killing me. They’ve marked me as some dumb guy. Have you gotten the impression that some dumb guy is sitting across from you?”
No. Does it offend you when people say you’re dumb?
“Very much. I’m not dumb. They are hurting my good name. After what I have contributed in my lifetime from the money I’ve made, people – with all due respect – really should be taking stock of their own actions.”
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You know, the impression I get from you is that you’re a much more refined person than the public perception of you. Softer.
“Look, in the place where we are today, softness is not an advantage. Bougie is soft,” he says, referring to former Labor Party Chairman Isaac Herzog.
I mean that I’m seeing a different fellow than the bully who yelled at bereaved families on TV [a reference to a heated exchange last April with parents who lost sons in the 2014 Gaza war].
'In my opinion, [a Palestinian] doesn’t have the right to national identity, because he does not own the land of this country'- Miki Zohar
“You see it, but how did I fix things? Look, if we put the matter in perspective, what I said to them was that they’d exaggerated. But OK, it’s true: Even if she [Leah Goldin, mother of slain Israel Defense Forces soldier Lt. Hadar Goldin, whose body is still in Gaza] said some pretty harsh things, I should have let it pass, as Bibi [Netanyahu] did. That would have been smart.”
How did you feel after that incident?
“I thought of resigning.”
Because of that?
“Among other things. After I was elected, the business was transferred to my wife. She wasn’t quite able to control it, and we suffered some significant financial damage. There was also the Shabbat law and all the chaos that followed it. And, at the same time, Bibi appointed [Likud MK David] Bitan as coalition whip, [Likud MK Yoav] Kish as the House Committee chairman, and I received no appointment. It was all mixed up together, and I said: ‘That’s it, I’m out of here.’ And then my wife said to me, ‘Miki, I will accept any decision you make, but I think you should stay on.’ I struggled over it and then said to myself, ‘Stay, until the public decides otherwise.’ And my sense is that the public is not about to decide otherwise anytime soon. I really feel that with God’s help, when the next Likud primary comes around, I will achieve good results.”
What would you consider a good result?
“Placing in the top 10 [on the party’s Knesset slate] is a good result. A realistic place is in the top 15.”
You wanted to resign but now you’re talking about the top 10. Aren’t you veering a little between two extremes?
'Look, politics is a disease. It’s a sort of masochism that I cannot explain'- Miki Zohar
“Look, politics is a disease. It’s a sort of masochism that I cannot explain.”
‘Stop the lies’
Zohar formerly served as deputy mayor of Kiryat Gat, was chairman of the local Maccabi basketball club and a real-estate entrepreneur before being elected to the Knesset in March 2015. He was 22nd on the Likud slate as part its local government list..
Zohar’s father died in a car accident when Miki was 5, and he was raised by his mother, who managed the family’s real-estate business: “She came down with cancer, had a stroke, was a woman who suffered from weight problems and was manic depressive. I wrote on her tombstone, ‘A woman who suffered much torment and who devoted her life to the success of her son.’”
'[My wife] wants to set up a Palestinian state here. Is there anything more leftist than that'- Miki Zohar
Zohar married another strong woman, Yamit, who is, he claims, a left-winger. “In our house, everyone does what he wants to do. Look at my son Eliav, who is 17, and looks like a Tel Aviv hipster. He plays heavy rock music and smokes on Shabbat [Zohar and his wife are traditionalist].”
How are Yamit’s left-wing views expressed?
“She wants to set up a Palestinian state here. Is there anything more leftist than that?”
What did she say about your plan to annex the territories and not give Palestinians the right to vote?
“[She asked], ‘Why aren’t you giving them the right to vote?’”
You weren’t serious about this idea, right?
“I still take it seriously. When we say to the Palestinians, ‘We are giving you a state, let’s make peace’ – it’s deceiving them. No one is going to give them a state, not the left either. I am saying: Let’s cut this problem off before it begins and stop with the lies. We’ll tell them: ‘Guys, no state, live here with us, prosper, earn a living, educate your children’”
Just don’t vote in the Knesset elections.
“We must always maintain control over the mechanisms of the state, as the Jewish people that received this country by right and not by an act of charity. Over the years it is very possible the Arabs could become the majority here, and I cannot take this risk.”
'I’m sorry to say this, but [Palestinians] have one conspicuous liability: They weren’t born Jews'- Miki Zohar
Miki, you are describing de facto apartheid. Even in Likud they’re saying this proposal is wholly unrealistic.
“People in Likud try to get around it in all sorts of ways. They don’t want to come across as extremists. What I am saying is not extreme, it’s realistic. I’ve spoken with a lot of Palestinians, who used to come and work for me. They do not want a State of Israel. Those who do want a State of Israel are part of the extremist leadership, for whom it is important to have a lot of money hidden away in their basements. The average Palestinian wants to have a well-educated child, wants to have enough food to put on the table, wants to not live in fear.”
It’s interesting, as someone who talks so much about identity and self-determination, that you don’t seem to be able to see that a Palestinian could want a national identity in the same way you do.
“But in my opinion, he doesn’t have the right to national identity, because he does not own the land of this country. I want him as a resident by virtue of my own sense of fairness – because he was born here and lives here, I will not tell him to leave. I’m sorry to say this, but they have one conspicuous liability: They weren’t born Jews.”
So what about the Palestinian Arabs living in Israel? Why, according to your way of thinking, do they deserve the right to vote, as opposed to their brethren in the territories?
“They will have to choose if they are loyal to the state, and there are three conditions: doing national service; recognition of the Israeli flag, which would fly above every public institution; and recognizing Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. And this would not be the decision of an individual, but of a public authority. If they can’t meet these criteria, they would no longer be able to vote for the Knesset.”
'In the event of any discrimination, wherever it may be – between Jew and Arab, between religious and secular – I will be there'- Miki Zohar
I meet Zohar at an ice-cream shop in the predominantly ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi) city of Bnei Brak. He spends quite a bit of time in Haredi territory. Prior to our meeting, I watched a video in which he is telling Chabad Hasidim that his birth was a miracle of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and that his service in the Knesset is actually a mission ordained by the Rebbe.
Zohar: “The Haredi public loves me, because my political positions promote Judaism in the country. I say: ‘This country is ours because we are Jews, let’s act as Jews do. Everyone should live in accordance with his faith, but he or she should remember the fundamental Jewish tenants: Shabbat is a day of rest. You want to go to the beach? Go to the beach. You want to go to a cinema? Go to a cinema. But don’t go to work.”
So who’ll run the cinema?
“Not Jews. A Muslim will work for me on Shabbat; I’ll work for him on Friday. Seems like a fair deal to me.”
Following the bitter disappointment of that round of appointments of fellow Likudniks to various posts by Prime Minister Netanyahu, Zohar – who serves as coordinator of coalition efforts on the Knesset Finance Committee – was given the chairmanship of the Knesset Special Committee for Distributive Justice and Social Equality.
“I am very different in my social views from many in Likud. I am a social democrat par excellence,” he declares.
I remind Zohar of the first time I saw him, before he became an MK. He had arrived to take part in a political panel held at a yeshiva high school in Yokne’am, northern Israel, in his Jaguar, which attracted a lot of attention from the students.
Zohar: “That was one fantastic Jaguar. I don’t understand what the problem was. Why is it that someone with social-democratic views can’t also be wealthy? A Jaguar is a luxury car. It’s the most legitimate thing in the world for a person to do what he wants with his money. When I became a public figure, it seemed to me that the right thing to do was to assume a more modest lifestyle.” Zohar sold the car.
I’ve taken a look at the minutes of the special committee’s sessions, and see that it has discussed the charges of discrimination when it comes to airfares paid by Bratslav Hasidim [Zohar complained about the high costs paid by Hasidim when traveling to the burial place of Rabbi Nachman in Uman Ukraine], and discrimination against Shabbat-observant athletes at official competitions. Is this what you would consider distributive justice?
“In the event of any discrimination, wherever it may be – between Jew and Arab, between religious and secular – I will be there.”
In the framework of his committee activities on the special committee, Zohar has been reprimanded by the Knesset Ethics Committee, following an investigative journalism piece by Shuki Sadeh in TheMarker last May, which found that the lawmaker held discussions in the committee pertaining to infrastructures and construction in the Karmei Gat neighborhood, where his wife – who now manages the family business – owns five homes.
“They did me one of the greatest injustices you can do to a human being,” he says in response. “The Ethics Committee said to me, ‘We’re going to end this, as if nothing happened. But don’t hold any discussions on this subject.’ I said, ‘That’s not an option. I am not holding these committee debates for the good of my wife, but for the good of Kiryat Gat.’ With all due respect, if there is a synagogue or a school there, it doesn’t do anything to promote my wife’s house.”
But there are five houses, aren’t there?
“Yes, thank God. The value of the house is determined by the directions it faces, the number of square meters in the living room, the type of flooring that is installed.”
Miki, you’re playing dumb. If you own properties in a certain place, and it isn’t one or two properties, then doesn’t development of the neighborhood raise the value of those properties?
“Let me ask you a question. How is it that the Knesset’s legal counsel permitted me to engage in the issue of [the legislation related to] taxation on a third residential property? After all, the money I have to pay on taxes for a third property is not a few tens of thousands of shekels, which may perhaps derive from improvement of the property, but hundreds of thousands of shekels that I would have had to pay if this law had been enacted – and I was virulently opposed to it. Why did he permit me to engage in the discussion in that case, but not in this one [regarding the houses]? Because the moment that this story got out to the media, the members of the committee wanted to show they were more righteous than the pope. I don’t feel any strong connection to the sort of politicians who are always declaring how lily-white and pure they are.”
How is that expressed?
“Listen, when I speak about coalition funds that I’ve managed to have allocated, for instance, then I say: Yes, I am a politician, there are people whose interests I wish to promote, and I want to give them coalition funding. What’s the big deal? What, when they did it in Mapai [the precursor of the Labor Party], then it was OK? Why is it that now it isn’t OK to promote agendas in which I believe?”
But it isn’t agendas. It’s the special interests of individuals – in this case, individuals from your district.
“They sent me to the Knesset. When I give money to the head of a local council, I have promoted him politically. Why not? What’s bad about that? How is politics supposed to work?”