From smoking weed to sexual harassment, Israel's Knesset members struggle with scandal

Knesset member Yinon Magal is accused of improper behavior, Knesset member Oren Hazan mocked a handicapped colleague, and Sharon Gal had to resign from the Knesset in order to avoid a scandal.

al-monitor A general view shows the plenum as Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the opening of the winter session of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, in Jerusalem, Oct. 14, 2013.  Photo by REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun.

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yesh atid, scandal, naftali bennett, likud, knesset members, knesset, harassment, habayit hayehudi

Nov 25, 2015

At his installation speech as a legislator at the Knesset on May 4, Yinon Magal from HaBayit HaYehudi quoted a verse from Pirkei Avot (Avot a:a), a compendium of Jewish ethical teachings. It tells how the Torah was first handed to Moses at Mount Sinai, who then handed it over to Joshua, who gave it to the Jewish elders, who in turn passed it on to the prophets, who entrusted it with Knesset Gdola — the Great Assembly — a supreme body of Jewish scholars. Later Magal described how he had read the verse to one of his five children, explaining the huge responsibility that the members of the Great Assembly played in Jewish life and their impact to this very day.

In the wake of the alleged sexual harassment affair that was revealed Nov. 24, one cannot but wonder how a person can be so oblivious when he speaks ad nauseam about family values, Jewish ethics and the fantasy of building of a new temple, while allowing himself to behave so offensively toward the women around him. Having been stripped of his position as the faction’s chairman following a harsh nightly tete-a-tete with his party’s leader Naftali Bennett, Magal will be remembered by the public mainly as a joke, whether he completes a full term or whether he decides to step down. Unfortunately, however, the joke is at the public’s expense.

It remains to be seen what will be the fate of the new Knesset member in terms of criminal charges, but it is reasonable to assume that Magal’s career will be rather short-lived despite having seen himself as a future Cabinet minister.

The person who needs to do some soul searching and look into his own decision-making process is obviously Bennett, who pulled Magal from a very senior position in the Israeli media — editor-in-chief of Walla!, a popular news website. Bennett thought he had a trump card when it came to the votes of mainstream young Israelis. In the public mindset, Magal is branded as someone wearing many hats: A Tel Avivian on the one hand, he is also a supporter of the settlements on the other. A secular person, he also embraces Jewish tradition. He also supports legalizing cannabis, but is firmly opposed to any territorial compromise with the Palestinians. In a nutshell — he is a right-winger and hip.

If Bennett had only vetted both Magal’s recent and distant past a tad more closely and conducted even a superficial inquiry into his candidate, he would have realized that he was planting a ticking bomb into his party. A person whose Instagram account sported a woman in a thong — after already going into politics — and who spoke freely about doing drugs and who was known for his big mouth and the carefree atmosphere in which he ran the website's news desk was not the right match for a religious party such as HaBayit HaYehudi.

But what Bennett envisioned were the seats he could garner with a refreshing poster boy like Magal, who also served with him in the top-notch elite reconnaissance unit in the Israeli army, Sayeret Matkal. The chairman secured Magal a position on the party’s slate where his election was guaranteed without first having to go through a primary. It is for this reason that the party’s chairman should take the fall for this disgrace.

Bennett’s opposition within HaBayit HaYehudi will now claim, and rightly so, that his judgment is seriously impaired and that he has gravely tarnished the party’s image. They might also bring up the affair prior to the elections in which he promised former soccer player Eli Ohana a place on the party’s slate — a move that elicited strong opposition within the party, forcing Ohana to step down just a few days later.

Pulling Magal and Ohana out of Israel’s mainstream into HaBayit HaYehudi is another indication of Bennett’s rashness and high self-confidence that every once in a while gets him in trouble due to his controversial statements. On Nov. 23, he was forced to issue an apology and explain his statement at a closed party forum to the effect that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “spoke abroad about taking a unilateral step [vis-a-vis the Palestinians] and then retracted only after I put a bullet right between his eyes.”

Bennett is the face of a new politics, and Magal is its byproduct, similar to the way that former Knesset member Sharon Gal was a ticking public bomb that exploded in the face of his party’s chairman, former Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman. The latter’s decision to bring the provocative journalist Gal into Yisrael Beitenu’s slate ahead of the March 17 election was an abortive attempt to catch up with Bennett’s politics targeting a young electoral base that lives on Facebook and Twitter. Gal did not last six months in the Knesset before announcing his retirement. In both cases, the leaders of those parties preferred appearances to core values, thus falling into a trap of promoting two questionable characters.

Unlike Magal and Gal, the youngest Likud Knesset member, Oren Hazan, was democratically elected in the party’s primaries, securing his place at No. 30 on the slate. To the credit of Likud members, it can be said that even they did not think they would get so many seats in the general elections. All of a sudden Israel’s largest party found itself with one of the most embarrassing lawmakers to ever grace the Knesset. It was not just the investigative reports about the casino he ran and the call girls he provided to his customers — which he denies — but also the fact that he behaves wantonly at the Knesset, denigrating the state’s iconic institution, deriding the prime minister and the defense minister, Moshe Ya'alon, and only last week verbally abused a Knesset member, Karin Elharrar, for her disability.

What Hazan did at the plenary Nov. 23 to Yesh Atid's Elharrar is far more disgraceful than the most fiery and ignoble altercations between Arab and right-wing lawmakers. In those cases, at least, the exchanges were based on ideological strife and public interest. Publicly disgracing a person for their disability is something that this parliament had never seen before — that is, until Hazan showed up. One more upsetting thing about Hazan is the fact that due to his political clout, especially in light of Netanyahu’s narrow government, the Likud avoids taking real measures against him.

The only consolation these days when Knesset members embarrass each other, their institution and the country in general, is those young lawmakers who joined the parliament in 2013 in the wake of the social protest, granting Israeli politics a somewhat brighter future. Stav Shaffir, Itzik Shmuli and Merav Michaeli from the Zionist Camp, Tamar Zandberg from Meretz and Elharrar from Yesh Atid — one does not have to agree with their political views in order to wish for this kind of politics that brings honor to the Knesset and does not prolong the never-ending list of “affairs” this parliament has produced.

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