Israel Pulse

Who wants to be a Knesset member?

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Article Summary
The political arena has lost its attractiveness for people of substantial public service and achievement, opening the stage for media celebrities, and even for the world of soccer.

Last week, former soccer star Eli Ohana received a phone call from someone close to HaBayit HaYehudi Party head Naftali Bennett, who approached him with a surprising offer. This intermediary offered Ohana a safe position on the party’s list for the 20th Knesset. Ohana, who now works as a sports commentator and coach of Israel’s all-star youth soccer team, told him that there was something to talk about. From there, things gathered momentum. On Jan. 26, Ohana paid Bennett a visit in his expansive home in Raanana for an initial meeting. The two of them agreed that Ohana would join HaBayit HaYehudi, and that he would be given the No. 10 “safe spot” on the list.

Bennett has been worried about his party’s radical right-wing religious image, ever since HaBayit HaYehudi held its primaries Jan. 14. He had hoped for a more secular list, thinking that it would be more attractive to Likud voters — those from the more moderate right and from the center-right, who were reluctant to support candidates like Knesset member Orit Strock and Housing Minister Uri Ariel.

When Ohana’s name first came up, the overall feeling was “Bingo!” Ohana, 50, the son of poor laborers who immigrated from Morocco, was one of Israel’s top soccer stars. Today, he is a sports icon and closely identifies with the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team, but also with the Likud and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The initial contact between Ohana and Bennett’s adviser took place under pressure, for fear that the prime minister, who just happens to be looking desperately for an attractive candidate to fill a safe spot on the Likud list, would approach Ohana first. Ohana had flirted with quite a few parties and politicians in the past. It was only after he closed the deal with Bennett, that the HaBayit HaYehudi Party found the time to deal with the potentially problematic implications of that decision.

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Ohana has never been particularly close to the National Religious Party (mother party of HaBayit HaYehudi) or the hard right. He had been a Likud supporter for years, but he later supported late Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Kadima Party and the disengagement from Gaza in 2005. During this huge rift that emerged over the settlements, he said, “Sharon can evacuate all the settlements, as far as I am concerned. We have enough territory to live in.”

He returned to the Likud and supported Netanyahu in 2009, but in the last elections, in 2013, he voted for former Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and Kadima. In other words, Ohana’s political history is not exactly in accord with the HaBayit HaYehudi platform, which proudly waves the banner of the settlements and rejects same-sex marriage.

Yet, just one day after the announcement that he had joined the party, Ohana could already identify with the platform of his new political home, and made statements that reflected his new positions. He explained that he had been mistaken in supporting the disengagement from Gaza. Bennett himself also released a special statement saying that the former soccer star, a lifelong Likud supporter, told him, “That’s it. I no longer believe in withdrawals and disengagements. I’ve wised up, just like the rest of Israel. I love the people of Israel, the Land of Israel and the Torah of Israel, and I have come home to HaBayit HaYehudi [the 'Jewish Home'].” That concluded Ohana’s rapid conversion process, which took him from the Likud to Bennett. On the other hand, the process is not complete yet. It has already evoked the ire of veteran HaBayit HaYehudi members, who protested the speedy recruitment of this new secular candidate. Some claim that he is a shallow figure, who does not reflect the party's values, while others claim that the safe spot he was offered comes at the expense of party members, who competed in the primaries and would now be pushed down the list.

Ohana’s rapid transition from soccer to politics, and from the Likud and Kadima to HaBayit HaYehudi is strangely reminiscent of some episode on a reality show. A person is suddenly pulled out of his natural environment and, in the blink of an eye, becomes a representative of the public, without ever have gone through any political or party track, and without even identifying in the past with the political platform that he is about to represent in the Knesset.

This particular case is the epitome of a new phenomenon, in which people from outside the realm of politics are being offered safe seats in the next Knesset. They are being cast as Knesset members solely because they meet some criterion or other that the party’s chair or his advisers think will attract voters. In the same way, professor Manual Trachtenberg was offered the safe 11th spot on the Zionist Camp’s Knesset list, simply because party Chairman Isaac Herzog thought that he would be an attractive candidate for finance minister.

Other key figures in the party can rightly feel frustrated that another candidate for finance minister was plopped onto the party list from the outside. One example of this would be former Labor Party Chairwoman Shelly Yachimovich, who climbed through the ranks of the Labor Party and is now closely identified with socioeconomic issues.

At the event marking the launch of the Zionist Camp list Jan. 25, Trachtenberg was humiliated by jeering from many young Labor supporters, who thought that his neoliberal economics do not match the Labor Party's social democratic principles.

In another instance, the most senior security card of the Zionist Camp, Maj. Gen. (Res.) Amos Yadlin, did not even receive a slot in the party’s Knesset list. Instead, he was presented as its outside candidate for defense minister. Yadlin, who heads the Institute for National Security Studies, was unwilling to risk his job just to become a run-of-the-mill Knesset member.

In all of the aforementioned cases, the individual’s commitment to the political home is temporary. They may be there today, but who knows where they will end up after the elections?

And there are plenty of other examples in the current election campaign. Journalist Sharon Gal was given the No. 5 slot on the Yisrael Beitenu list only because party Chairman Avigdor Liberman concluded that he would draw the support of young right-wingers, a constituency that supposedly supports Bennett overwhelmingly.

Meanwhile, Bennett also saved a safe spot for another right-wing media star, the secular Yinon Magal, who served in the same elite Matkal commando unit as Bennett. Magal, who spent years working in the heart of the left-wing media, was given the party’s secular spot, and can now tell everyone about how the Fourth Estate discriminates against right-wing politicians.

Nor should we forget Kulanu Party leader Moshe Kahlon, who rushed to find Ethiopian journalist Tsega Melaku and gave her the safe No. 3 spot on his list. The whole process was so rushed and amateurish that Kahlon and his people were completely unaware that Melaku, as an employee of the Israel Broadcast Authority, was required to resign from her position 100 days in advance to be eligible to run. As a result of this fiasco, she was disqualified as a candidate just three days before the list had to be finalized on Jan. 20, leaving Kahlon searching desperately for a replacement. At the same time, the prime minister himself has not yet found the attractive candidate for a safe spot in his own Likud Party. He has already been turned down by journalist Erel Segal. Later on, after thinking that he found the perfect candidate to replace Segal in journalist Caroline Glick, he discovered that she had been attacking him from every imaginable platform until just a few months ago.

Now, it seems, Netanyahu is trying to persuade former Israeli beauty queen Linor Abargil to join the Likud list.

No less characteristic of these elections is the fact that the role of a Knesset member has become considerably less attractive than it used to be for high-profile individuals with a proven record to back up their candidacy. In the past, these people would choose politics as a calling. They would join a party and go through a proper track that provided them with training and experience.

In contrast, Ohana, Magal and Gal have popped out of nowhere to join the parliamentary arena only because they seemed to be the right person at a particular moment, seemingly the most fitting to occupy a certain spot in the list. This is a disconcerting phenomenon, and becoming more and more common.

In effect, it's turning the entire political arena into a shallow and grotesque world, devoid of real content. People come and go without any commitment to ideas, never mind any path to realizing them. They have no public or political training, and they see the Knesset as little more than an interesting item to add to their resumes.

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Found in: sport, soccer, naftali bennett, knesset, israeli politics, israeli elections, israel, habayit hayehudi

Mazal Mualem is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse and formerly the senior political correspondent for Maariv and Haaretz. She also presents a weekly TV show covering social issues on the Knesset channel. On Twitter: @mazalm3

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