WASHINGTON — Israel’s LGBT community has frequently criticized Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his habit of speaking positively about the community when he addresses overseas audiences, but then ignoring their demands in Israel and aligning himself with the religious parties who oppose gay rights. But he seems to have broken his own record for hypocrisy in the lead-up to Election Day.
Last week, in a speech delivered via video to the annual AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, Netanyahu said — in English, of course — that equality for sexual minorities is one of the values Israel shares with the United States of America. He said that both countries are places where no citizen is discriminated against based on their sexual orientation.
Israel is clearly the most “gay-friendly” country in the Middle East, with Tel Aviv a proud LGBT stronghold. And yes, great progress has been made over the past three decades in the fight to end discrimination based on sexual orientation — but that is mostly thanks to the Israeli legal system Netanyahu and his political allies are looking to weaken if they win on April 9.
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If you think Netanyahu genuinely cares about this issue, you may need to check your assumptions. On Monday, less than a week after once more using the LGBT community as an applause line at AIPAC, the prime minister gave legitimacy to the ugliest form of homophobia on prime time Israeli television.
He did it in order to push back against an investigative story about suspicious social media accounts that praised him and spread false, libelous “information” about his political rivals. The article was published in the New York Times and, separately, in the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth.
Netanyahu, in a legitimate attempt to weaken a negative news story, called a press conference Monday afternoon in which he denounced the claims. He had a case: While the NYT report explained that the accounts in question were not bots but instead accounts operated under false identities by real people, the Yedioth version had some holes in it — most significantly when it labeled an account operated by a real person under his own name as fake.
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However, in his effort to push back against Yedioth, Netanyahu crossed a red line. In order to strengthen his point he invited a special guest to his press conference: The man behind one of the most virulent anonymous accounts mentioned in the Yedioth report, operating under the name “Captain George.” (That handle is a reference to the nickname of a former Israel Defense Forces officer known for torturing Arab captives.)
This account published hundreds of offensive tweets over recent months, many of which were in turn shared and promoted by other members of the pro-Netanyahu “network.” The account accused Netanyahu’s main political rival, Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz, of pedophilia and called Amnon Abramovitch — a veteran journalist and decorated war hero who has been critical of Netanyahu — “a stinking dog.”
Many of the tweets published from the account contain explicit slurs directed at members of the LGBT community.
Netanyahu wanted to prove that “Captain George” was a real person, not a bot. So he invited the man behind the filth — a real estate agent from central Israel called Giora Ezra — to his office. Netanyahu stood in front of the cameras with him and joked that perhaps he was a robot. He embraced him, patted him on the back and laughed with him — without expressing a single word of criticism over the vile content of his tweets. (He also made sure to include Likud’s openly gay lawmaker, Amir Ohana, in the event.)
In the hours after the press conference, Netanyahu’s critics highlighted just some of Captain George’s racist and homophobic tweets: “This is the man Netanyahu invited to his office today,” tweeted Kahol Lavan No.2 Yair Lapid, together with screen grabs of some of the offensive comments. Nadav Abuksis, a gay comedian who identifies as a right-winger, criticized Netanyahu for meeting with Captain George at the same time he has been avoiding requests to meet residents from the beleaguered Gaza border area.
“Gaza border residents, this is what you need to do in order to get a meeting with Netanyahu,” Abuksis wrote on Twitter, linking to a tweet by Captain George that contained no fewer than seven different homophobic slurs.
During such a heated election campaign, it would have been an error for Netanyahu to not push back against the Yedioth and NYT stories, especially after it became apparent Yedioth had made at least one critical error (which the newspaper admitted and corrected on Tuesday). But his decision to invite Captain George to his office and to appear with him on live television, patting him on the back with a smile, is one of the most distasteful he has made recently — and there is serious competition in this category.
Let’s imagine for a moment what would happen if, as part of a political dispute, the leader of a German, French or Italian political party were to invite to their office a known anti-Semite who regularly publishes tweets cursing Jews in the foulest of language. Imagine then if the leader of said party were to treat his anti-Semitic guest like a funny prankster or, worse, a long-lost brother.
In a scenario like this, there would be outrage in Israel and the Jewish Diaspora — and for good reason. Jewish news outlets in the United States regularly publish stories about meetings between elected officials and supporters of anti-Semitism. The same rules must apply for a meeting between the prime minister of the Jewish state and a man who once called Itzik Shmuli, a gay lawmaker from the Labor Party, a “pillow biter.”
Netanyahu will probably claim in his defense that he “didn’t know” about his guest’s vile tweets: This has become his most useful excuse during the election race, having used it several times already about some of his party’s campaign stunts.
On Election Day in 2015, Netanyahu famously warned that “Arab voters” were voting in droves. A week later, with his victory secured, he issued a weak apology for his racist statement — mostly in order to pacify angry reactions from the United States.
The leaders of many Jewish-American organizations chose to accept his apology at the time, failing to recognize how cynical it all was. When he apologizes today, tomorrow or next week for legitimizing anti-LGBT rhetoric, many of those same leaders will probably believe him again.