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Likud's first openly gay Knesset member finds mixed reception

Amir Ohana, the Likud's first openly gay Knesset member, won't be able to do much to advance LGBT rights in the ruling right-wing coalition, which depends on ultra-Orthodox support.

The swearing-in ceremony of the first openly homosexual Likud Knesset member, Amir Ohana, could have augured welcome progress toward full equality for the gay community. Ohana, who replaced newly resigned Knesset member Silvan Shalom on Dec. 28, was accorded a particularly warm personal welcome by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who went out of his way to ply him with compliments. In an unusual move, the prime minister even greeted Ohana from the Knesset podium, praising his work, stressing the unique responsibility he bears and taking pride in the ruling party choosing Ohana from among its ranks.

The new legislator was accorded a similar welcome by all the Likud's Knesset members and ministers, who crowded around to embrace him and slap his shoulders after he finished speaking. Leftist and centrist lawmakers also offered kind words, creating a sense of a momentous occasion in Israeli politics.

Ohana’s maiden Knesset speech was inspirational. He spoke about his parents, who had emigrated from Morocco to build the Jewish state. He also discussed his partner, Alon, “the love of my life,” and their recently born twins, Ella and David, the result of an expensive surrogacy procedure in the United States. Ohana described himself as “Jewish, Israeli, of Sephardi origin, a homosexual, a Likudnik, a defense hawk, a social liberal and a free market advocate.”

His family and dozens of friends from the gay community looked on with excitement from the visitors’ gallery at the 39-year-old Ohana, a lawyer, former military officer and one-time Shin Bet security agency operative. There are now two openly gay Knesset members, as Itzik Shmuli of the Zionist Camp came out in the summer; this is a reflection of the progress in public attitudes toward the gay community and of its political strength.

But the exuberant display of Knesset liberalism was overshadowed by the decision of its 13 ultra-Orthodox members — from the Shas and Yahadut HaTorah parties — to boycott Ohana’s swearing-in ceremony. They simply disappeared from the chamber during the event. In addition to the shameful homophobia of their move, the boycott is also a clear statement of intent: The ultra-Orthodox will shoot down any attempts to pass pro-LGBT legislation.

With a narrow coalition of 61 Knesset members, Netanyahu’s desire to achieve a breakthrough in this field is immaterial. The ultra-Orthodox will make sure to block it. Therefore, the effect of Ohana’s accession to the legislature is largely symbolic. While his membership in the Knesset is of tremendous importance in terms of image, and should not be disparaged, it’s important to remember that his ability to bring about real change in legal terms will keep coming up against an ultra-Orthodox glass ceiling.

In a portent of things to come, while the prime minister welcomed and praised Ohana, he did not bother to distance himself from the boycott by the ultra-Orthodox, at least not by condemning it in front of the cameras. This could have been a statement of intent on his part, but Netanyahu, with all his affection for Ohana and empathy for the LGBT community, is first and foremost a prime minister fighting for political survival. And so Netanyahu missed a great opportunity presented by this occasion. After all, it was only a few months ago, on July 30, that Shira Banki, 16, was murdered at a gay pride parade in Jerusalem by Yishai Schlissel, an ultra-Orthodox man who stabbed her and injured other participants in a frenzy of hatred for the community. Netanyahu, who visited the injured and eulogized Banki for her courage, could have at least mentioned that horrible event perpetrated by a member of the ultra-Orthodox community.

Writing for Al-Monitor following Banki's death, Mordechai Goldman argued that the political leadership of the ultra-Orthodox community refuses to assume responsibility for the climate that led to that horrible act. While some ultra-Orthodox did issue condemnations of the killing, there was no public soul-searching. Thus, the political leadership’s boycott of Ohana should also be viewed as encouragement of hate against homosexuals.

Ohana naturally brought up Banki’s murder in his speech, but when interviewed afterward by the Knesset Channel, Ohana was honest enough to admit that if a decision by the coalition requires him to vote against legislation benefiting the community, he would be forced to toe the line.

In an interview with Army Radio the day after being sworn in, Ohana was determined not to make a big deal out of the ultra-Orthodox boycott against him. Ohana said, “During the speech I didn’t even notice their absence, and later, when I heard about it, I could only hope that on the issue of LGBT rights, this absence will continue. It will be wonderful if they’re not there, because then I will be able to really push through something and they won’t be there to object.”

This optimistic scenario, of course, is unlikely to materialize, although the issue of LGBT equality has a clear Knesset majority if one pools the votes of the right and of the center-left parties in the opposition. Nonetheless, the current Knesset is likely to tread water or even backtrack on equal rights for the gay community.

A report by the Molad Institute summing up the achievements of the 19th Knesset defines the pro-LGBT legislation as a missed opportunity under the 2013-15 coalition government of the Likud, Yesh Atid and Naftali Bennett's HaBayit HaYehudi.

The report notes that at the end of the 1990s, Israel started gaining an international reputation as one of the most progressive states for the LGBT community, but in recent years that has undergone a dramatic change. The report finds that Israel is gradually losing its standing as one of the most supportive countries for homosexuals among the most democratic countries. Whereas 34 countries around the world formally recognize LGBT unions and 22 offer equal adoption rights, Israel does not allow same-sex marriage or adoption by same-sex couples, nor does it recognize contractual same-sex unions. The report also lists Israel's poor legislative achievements: “Since the 2013 elections, no less than 17 gay rights bills have been proposed to the Knesset. The large majority were foiled or stranded, despite loud public outcries and an appearance of progress.”

According to the report, responsibility for derailing the proposed legislation lies with HaBayit HaYehudi, which caved to pressure on the part of the religious elements within the party. One can assume that there’s no point in harboring great expectations for a coalition made up of HaBayit HaYehudi and the ultra-Orthodox parties. Ohana, who appears to be an astute politician, understands this arithmetic and has thus lowered expectations.

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