The Mysterious, New Likud Lawmaker With Ties to Sara Netanyahu

Nava Boker has submitted 22 bills in three months, including ones to legitimize pirate radio stations and gray-market lenders. Where do her loyalties lie?

Olivier Fitoussii

With astonishing alacrity, right before the Knesset adjourned for summer recess, a private members’ bill was put forward with the aim of legalizing illegally established regional radio stations. Behind the draft law, which has the cabinet’s active support, is a group of MKs headed by Likud’s Nava Boker.

Last Sunday, less than two weeks after it was submitted to the Knesset, the Ministerial Committee for Legislation approved the bill. The Knesset passed it in preliminary reading on Thursday, and it is expected to sail through the next stages before being enacted within a few short months. If all goes as planned, three regional radio stations – Radio Darom, Radio Haifa and Radio Lev Hamedina – will be allocated an additional shared broadcast frequency. Other stations that applied for a similar permit were turned down.

The MKs who voted for the bill cut across party lines and ideologies. These included Boker’s Likud colleague David Bitan; Hilik Bar and Yossi Yonah (Zionist Union); Roy Folkman and Tali Ploskov (Kulanu); Jacob Perry (Yesh Atid); Robert Ilatov (Yisrael Beiteinu); Yitzhak Vaknin and Yakov Margi (Shas); and Abd al-Hakim Hajj Yahya (Joint Arab List). Legislators from Meretz, United Torah Judaism and Habayit Hayehudi refused to support the draft law.

Boker’s page on the Knesset website describes her as a 44-year-old widow with two daughters, who has taken undergraduate courses in social sciences and the humanities at Beit Berl Teachers Training College and Israel’s Open University. She is a media adviser, journalist and lecturer with 20 years’ experience, including stints at Channel 1 television, the Hebrew daily Maariv and other media outlets. She is the widow of Israel Police Brig. Gen. Lior Boker, who was head of police operations for the Northern District when he died in the Carmel forest fire of 2010.

Nava Boker became a leading figure in the families’ fight for a full investigation into the fire, and correction of lapses that it revealed. She was also the founding chairwoman of the foundation that was established in her late husband’s name to support Israel’s firefighting and rescue services.

Although Boker didn’t apply to run in the 2014 Likud primary until just eight days before the vote was held, late last year, she placed 25th on the party’s slate, receiving a slot reserved for a woman. In media interviews after the primary, Boker – who did not raise money for her election bid – was quoted as saying she was chosen “without deals, without donors and with zero budget.” Senior Likud figures say that at the time of the primary, the party was not expected to win more than 18 or 20 Knesset seats in the election. As a result, a number of important women in Likud did not contest the primary because they figured there was a slim chance of their being elected.

The main driver behind the problematic bill is David Ben-Bassat, a former Likud Central Committee member who is the chairman of the Regional Radio Association and owner of the regional radio stations Radius and Radio Lev Hamedina. He frequently interviews MKs and cabinet members personally for his radio stations.

Ben-Bassat is also the owner of Pervoe, an unlicensed Russian-language radio station. Other supporters of the draft law include Zvika Shalom, the brother of Interior Minister Silvan Shalom and a partner in both Radio Darom and Radio Galey Israel – the regional station of the West Bank; and Dani Nishlis, a partner in the regional stations Radio Haifa and Radio Tel Aviv.

Recent interviewees on Ben-Bassat’s politics program “Hanivharim” have included Boker, Perry, Tourism Minister Yariv Levin and Science, Technology and Space Minister Danny Danon. The interview with Boker was about 25 minutes long, and was broadcast two and a half weeks before she introduced her bill on the regional radio stations.

The communications minister in the previous government, Gilad Erdan, was opposed to perpetuating the situation in which regional radio stations were allocated more bandwidth supposedly in order to improve reception in their broadcast area, but actually using the new frequencies to establish additional stations, with separate content. The council of the Second Television and Radio Authority, which supervises the regional radio stations, declared the stations’ continued operation illegal, while saying it would give them a few years before shutting down the additional broadcast frequencies. The stations recently petitioned the High Court of Justice against the agency’s decision, but the court declined to hear the case and gave the stations two years to stop broadcasting on shared frequencies.

Ben-Bassat claims the High Court discussed the passage of a law that would allow the shared broadcasts to continue. He argues that frequency sharing is mentioned on the regional stations’ license agreements and has been approved by successive legal advisers to the Second Authority. The legislative initiative, which Ben-Bassat lobbied for, was aimed at legalizing the radio stations and their policy of sharing broadcast frequencies. Speaking on condition of anonymity, one of the Knesset members who voted for the bill said he was pressured by Likud and figures in the coalition to back the draft law, and that he agreed to vote for it because he didn’t think it was problematic.

A Likud figure, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said it was not inconceivable that Boker and the other legislators who voted for the bill may have been influenced in their vote by Ben-Bassat’s political influence within the party. Ben-Bassat was at the Knesset during Thursday’s preliminary vote on the bill.

Last Sunday, Likud cabinet members Danon, Levin, Immigrant Absorption Minister Zeev Elkin, Senior Citizen Affairs Minister Gila Gamliel, Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev and Minister Ofir Akunis all voted for the draft law. Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked (Habayit Hayehudi) abstained. But despite the High Court ruling and the position of the Second Television and Radio Authority on the matter, no one voted against the bill.

‘Permit interest rates above 30%’

Boker has only been in the Knesset for three months, but she has more than one legislative iron in the fire. Her work on the regional radio law pales in comparison to her remarks last week in the Knesset Economic Affairs Committee, during a discussion of so-called gray-market lenders.

The committee, of which Boker is a member, was deliberating on a government bill that would impose a uniform cap on the maximum interest rate that could be charged for loans, with criminal sanctions for offenders. According to a report issued by the Knesset’s own research center, as of the end of March the effective annual interest rate in the unregulated finance sector ranged from 31.2% to 792%.

The bill would limit the maximum interest rate to the Bank of Israel rate plus 20% – much higher than the maximum allowed today by the current law, which is not enforced because it does not prescribe criminal penalties for violations. The law does not apply to the banking system, which is responsible for around 94% of the credit that is extended to households and small businesses in Israel.

Boker surprised attendees at the meeting when she declared, “The collection of interest at a rate above 30% must be permitted, so that [gray-market lenders] can continue to operate. It’s a customer sector of half a million households and small businesses. If the interest rate will be very low, below 30%, the companies in the gray market will not survive and the banks will become a monopoly.”

In the wake of her comments, Knesset members began asking each other which of these lenders Boker had spoken to. Boker added she had at heart the interests of poor Israelis who need capital but are turned away by the country’s banks, and it was because of these people the nonbanking lending sector must not be allowed to collapse.

Before the committee session, Boker met with representatives from this sector. Last week, a number of political figures – speaking on condition of anonymity – said Boker had behaved like a political tyro on both the gray market and regional radio issues. One suggested that perhaps she did not understand she was being used.

Another politician argued that allowing gray-market lenders to charge higher interest rates only increases their profits without helping borrowers, adding, “The question is whether [Boker] really understood this.”

Boker’s comments about unregulated lenders triggered harsh responses on social media, where users described her as someone who could be “turned” by lobbyists and vested interests. Last Monday, Boker was examined in her office in the Knesset by paramedics and a physician after she complained of feeling pressure in her chest. On Tuesday, she led a session of the Knesset Subcommittee for Fire and Rescue Services, which she chairs.

Boker also belongs to three important Knesset committees: finance, economic affairs, and interior and environment. In addition, she’s the chairwoman of two separate Knesset caucuses related to the operation of Israel’s fire and emergency services.

In the three months since the current Knesset was convened, she has submitted 22 bills and joined the sponsorship of another three. They include proposals that would abolish the so-called authors law; unify the emergency response phone numbers; provide unemployment benefits to freelance workers; add aides to kindergarten classrooms; limit the number of children in classrooms; and set a uniform ticket price for sports events.

Boker is a close friend of Sara Netanyahu, the wife of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Their friendship began after the Carmel forest fire, when Sara met with the families of the victims and remained in touch with them. At Boker’s request, Sara Netanyahu arranged for her to meet with the prime minister.

In media interviews, Boker has praised Sara Netanyahu, saying it pained Boker to see how she has been treated in the media.

A few weeks after the Likud primary, Boker – who was appointed by the prime minister to head the party’s women’s outreach department – organized an event for 1,200 women that was attended by Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu. In a letter to Sara Netanyahu, the Likud women’s group expressed its support for the prime minister and for Sara’s efforts on his behalf and on behalf of the state.

Two weeks ago, Boker and Sara Netanyahu took part in the dedication of a training center named for Adar Barsano, a 20-year-old soldier who was killed in Operation Protective Edge last summer.