Interview'Bad decisions usually happen in darkness'

After years lobbying for Knesset transparency, journalist sets sights on inside job

Shakuf’s Tomer Avital is leaving good governance reporting to run for tightly-packed Labor party list in August 9 primaries

Carrie Keller-Lynn

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a former political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Tomer Avital, outside of the Knesset in Jerusalem. (Asaf Shafir)
Tomer Avital, outside of the Knesset in Jerusalem. (Asaf Shafir)

Watchdog journalist and activist Tomer Avital is making a risky bid, setting aside his political and good governance coverage to wade into the political arena as he attempts to win a spot on Labor’s slate for the coming Knesset election.

Avital, a co-founder of watchdog media organization Shakuf (“Transparent” in Hebrew) says he hopes to continue his work for public transparency through the Knesset’s inner workings.

Avital’s campaign promises have spanned from the mundane to the bombastic, including forcing economic and finance committee members to reveal their assets and installing cameras in his Knesset office to publicize meetings with lobbyists.

“Bad decisions usually happen in darkness,” he said in a Tuesday interview with The Times of Israel. “Citizens don’t know.”

After reanointing Labor party leader Merav Michaeli last month, party members will vote for the remainder of the Knesset slate on August 9, in anticipation of Israel’s November 1 general election. Avital, a first-time candidate, is hoping to clinch one of the top 10 spots.

Avital is probably best known for his investigative journalism at Shakuf and some of Israel’s top outlets, as well as his participation in the popular Israeli reality television show, Married at First Sight. His actual wife, Tamar, he met on Tinder.

Among the takeaways from his 13 years walking the Knesset halls, Avital said, was that Israel’s political polarization is in part the fault of parliamentary political theater. One of his transparency goals is to defuse the perception of pervasive political animosity.

(L-R) Labor chair Merav Michaeli, Likud chair Benjamin Netanyahu and UTJ MK Yaakov Litzman at a UTJ faction meeting to celebrate chairman Moshe Gafni’s birthday on May 9, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

“There is much cooperation, but it’s under the hood because every party is trying to increase its votes. But I know that in each party, there are MKs that actually cooperate with MKs from the other side, but they’re afraid electorally that it will hurt them,” he said.

“I think this is crazy because it trickles down to society and we all hate each other more because we think they don’t get along, and they represent us,” Avital said, adding that this contributes to societal polarization.

In addition to being a place to build cross-aisle relationships, the Knesset is an arena in which accumulated experience can pay dividends. Lawmakers who stay for long periods and develop deep, institutional knowledge are more effective, knowing how to work the complicated system.

Avital said that after years of digging deep into parliamentary procedure and observing legislative and oversight processes, he has concrete insights into “what are bad decisions and how we can fix them.”

He also says he knows how to wield some of the tools — and would plan to use them for transparency-creating oversight.

“Every MK has a toolbox that is accessible only to him. And citizens don’t know it. They judge parliament members according to how much they shout or when they see them on television or Facebook. But this toolbox is amazing. You can make ministers come to the plenum and answer a specific question. You can supervise the government super efficiently,” he said.

Tomer Avital. (Shir Stein)

While many prospective lawmakers dream of alluring ministerial posts or prestigious committee positions, Avital aspires to a decidedly less glamorous, but quietly powerful, position: the chair of the Knesset’s House Committee.

The House Committee deals with internal Knesset procedure, can expedite or put the brakes on the legislative process, and even has the ability to initiate fast-tracked legislation tied to the inner workings of the Knesset.

While such bureaucracy makes many people’s eyes glaze over, these are fundamental procedural and substantive powers that can have outsized lawmaking and political consequence. The House Committee recently made headlines when its chair, Yamina MK Nir Orbach, used his perch to drag out the parliament’s June dissolution process as leverage for political compromises.

Avital’s political run is a career gamble. He says even if his run is unsuccessful, he won’t return to covering politics because of the perceived conflict of interest, and possibly not even to Shakuf.

And he’s wading into a crowded field, with several existing Labor lawmakers competing over too few spots. Headed by Transportation Minister Michaeli, the Labor party’s slate reflects its commitment to gender equality, rotating odd spots after Michaeli to women and even numbers to men. Polling at only around 5-6 seats in the next election, Avital is functionally competing for one of two male spots, possibly three, to be a lawmaker.

Labor party sources expect existing lawmakers Gilad Kariv and Ram Shefa to take the second and fourth spots, respectively. For the three spots remaining in the top 10, Public Security Minister Omer Barlev, Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai and past Labor candidate Yaya Fink — founder of public interest initiative Lobby 99 — is also considered a contender.

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