You’re standing on a cliff. A crocodile-infested river is ahead. A pack of lions is behind you. In this scenario, says Likud’s newest Knesset Member Amir Ohana intently, you don’t need to choose between heading back to wrestle lions or forging ahead to dodge crocodile jaws. “Stand still,” he says.
So run Ohana’s views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Both the two-state plan and annexation will lead Israel to violent ruin. There is no solution. Stand still.
In an interview with The Times of Israel at his Knesset office, the personable Ohana, the first openly gay Likud Knesset member, who spent six years in the Israel Defense Forces and six years in the Shin Bet domestic security agency, says the current round of terror attacks has no immediate solution either, but urges the state to relax restrictions on gun licenses for Israelis who serve in the army reserves. If more people were armed in Tel Aviv, he says, grim-faced, the fatal Dizengoff shooting might have ended differently.
On matters of his coalition, Ohana denies that the ultra-Orthodox Knesset members are boycotting him. He acknowledges the difficulty of passing LGBT-friendly legislation in the 61-member right-wing and half-Orthodox coalition, but attributes this to the “effective veto power” of each lawmaker in such a slim government, rather than the religious makeup of the legislators. Moreover, the 39-year-old Knesset member from Beersheba, who came out when he was 15, contends that his “visibility” in the government is more important to the closeted “15-year-old boy from Yeruham” than any legislation.
A lukewarm welcome?
On December 28, his first day in the Knesset, Ohana gave a speech identifying with various components of Israeli society, including settlers, soldiers, and Mizrahim — those descended from Middle Eastern and North African Jews — as well as the religiously conservative ultra-Orthodox.
“When the outside appearance of a man is considered a good reason to hate him, to distance him from neighborhoods and employment — I am an ultra-Orthodox Jew who is not afraid,” he said.
But there were no ultra-Orthodox lawmakers in the plenum to hear him.
While initial reports indicated the Haredi lawmakers intentionally boycotted the speech, apparently over objections to his sexuality, Ohana says ultra-Orthodox MKs approached him to shake his hand later that evening, naming United Torah Judaism’s Moshe Gafni and Menachem Eliezer Mozes, and Shas leader Aryeh Deri and MKs Yaakov Mergi and Yoav Ben-Tzur, among those who congratulated him personally.
“First of all, there were some imprecise media reports on this matter. No one left, they simply weren’t there, just like other Knesset members, by the way. During the speech, I didn’t notice who was there and who wasn’t. I didn’t count. Only afterward people told me: ‘What do you think of the Haredim boycotting the speech?'”
Ohana says his swearing-in was preceded by a vote boycotted by the coalition. When it was his turn to address the Knesset, his fellow coalition members, beginning with Likud, were summoned, but it was possible the Haredi MKs were not aware the ceremony was being held, he says.
“On a personal level, you talk, shake hands, they come and say, ‘Don’t think that we boycotted you, we didn’t know.’ So I’m not going to argue with them. On a personal level, I think we’ll learn to work together,” Ohana says.
Still, the new Knesset member doesn’t seem entirely convinced.
“I don’t know exactly. Let’s put it this way, it could be their absence was intentional. [If so] I hope they continue to be absent in every bill that I raise,” he says — so that his bills will pass.
‘Not all problems have a solution’
Entering the governing party, the Churchill-quoting Ohana positions himself between his fellow party members who have pledged their support for the two-state solution, including, presumably, the prime minister himself, and those who have voiced their support in the past for annexation of portions of the West Bank. Turning to security matters, Ohana’s background in the military and security agency becomes apparent in his solemn and straightforward assessment, as does his affiliation with the Likud party.
“If you mean, am I in favor of 23 countries for one nation, and half a state for the other? The answer is no,” Ohana replies, when asked his views on the two-state solution.
“First of all, we need to recognize, as mature adults, that not all problems have a solution,” he says. “Israeli governments for generations have negotiated with the Arabs, have made far-reaching, extensive proposals and, nonetheless, despite these offers, we see there is no agreement, no arrangement, and it’s not even on the horizon. Therefore, I think it’s time to stop these desperate attempts to create another enemy state a kilometer away from Ben Gurion Airport, and make peace with the fact that we will conduct our lives just as we have done in the past decades.”
Nor does the gritty lawmaker endorse annexation, saying: “Just as there aren’t ‘solutions’ from the left, there are no ‘solutions’ from the right.” Diving in to his lions-crocodiles conundrum, between evacuation and annexation, Ohana sums up: “You don’t have to decide between going forward and going back. Stand still. Maybe this isn’t the solution you dreamed of. But it is the best… at the moment.”
“So I am not in favor of annexation. I think we are pushing our little boat of Israel in very stormy waters,” he continues. “If you look at everything around us, at the Middle East, it’s raging. There is no Syria anymore. It doesn’t exist… What is happening in Iraq — there is no Iraq. It’s over. And it’s possible that it will seep into other places. Therefore, in this situation, I don’t think it correct to make agreements and change the status quo.”
Moreover, says Ohana, Israel — despite its endless conflict — “has made phenomenal achievements that other states are jealous of,” pointing to its technological and economic accomplishments. “All of that, without peace. So they tell me ‘the situation can’t stay this way’ — I hope the situation continues this way,” he said.
Despite his objections, Ohana stops short of recommending that the prime minister disavow the two-state solution.
“I’m not an adviser to the prime minister. I am just stating my opinion,” he says.
Nor does he think Israel will forever be embroiled in this violent conflict.
“There will be peace here. When will there be peace? When the mainstream Arab leadership understands that we are here, not like the British before us or the Ottomans before them. We aren’t a passing phase. We’ve returned to our one and only eternal country. We’re here to stay. Because right now, what fuels the terror is the same hope that they will be successful in forcefully kicking us out of here — and they won’t.”
Terror likely to continue ‘for years to come’
Ohana does not see an end in the near future to the violence that has been wracking Israel since October 2015, in which 25 Israelis have been killed in near-daily Palestinian car-ramming, stabbing, and shooting attacks.
“From a security perspective, we see that every few years — from the founding of the State of Israel and before that — we have conflicts to manage. Whether in actual wars, or in the guerrilla fighting in the intifadas or the wave of terror in the past few months. These are things that will continue to accompany us, probably for many years to come,” he says.
In the interim, Ohana is urging the government to ease gun restrictions for Israelis who serve in the army reserves, for those with no criminal record or history of mental illness, to increase the number of gun-toting citizens on the streets. Eight attacks since October have been foiled by alert, armed citizens, he notes.
“One can only imagine what would have happened in the last attack on Friday, if there was someone there to pull out a gun and shoot the terrorists — maybe the few people who are no longer with us would have stayed alive. The same for the injured,” he said of the deadly shooting attack on the Simta Bar in Tel Aviv, in which two Israelis were killed.
“I’m not suggesting what is happening in some states in the US, where you can walk into a Walmart and buy a gun — that’s not what I’m suggesting. I’m talking about something a lot more moderate,” he says.
And what would he tell Israelis who wonder when the terror wave will end?
“Dear friends, be patient, there is no solution for the situation we’re in. At the same time, take into consideration that there were attempts to reach agreements, and they cost us — these attempts — a lot more blood than the current situation,” he says.
Improving LGBT ‘visibility’
After ending his army service and Shin Bet service, Ohana studied law, and in 2011 was among the founders of the Likud party’s first LGBT political branch. In 2014, he was elected head of the caucus, paving the way for his Knesset bid, and placed 32nd on the party slate. With the resignation of former interior minister Silvan Shalom over sexual harassment allegations, Ohana was in.
Speaking to The Times of Israel during his second week on the job, Ohana is insistent he will hold off on proposing legislation until he undergoes a “learning period” (though on Monday he announced he would advance a bill to make gender-based violence a hate crime). Moreover, he says, simply having a gay right-wing politician in the Knesset is more effective than legislation.
“It gives a lot more strength to the 15-year-old boy from Yeruham who sits at home and watches the prime minister of Israel welcoming the LGBT, the new Knesset member, Amir Ohana. It has a lot more power, in my eyes, than bills for tax equality… not that these bills aren’t important,” he says.
“I think the LGBT community’s problem, in Israel and in the Western world, is first and foremost image,” he says. “In Israel, the most insulting phrase — on soccer fields, in schools, in kindergartens — is ‘homo.’ This isn’t something that can be dealt with by legislation. I think the antidote to the prejudice, and the negative social treatment… is visibility. The fact that I… am working in the ruling party — which is very mainstream in Israel, which is right-wing — outside the closet, openly, contributes a lot more than bills.”
Ohana — who lives in Tel Aviv with his partner, Alon Hadad, and five-month-old twins, born to a US-based surrogate — maintains Israel’s treatment of the LGBT is “excellent” for the Middle East, and “good” in comparison to the world, but laments that Israel is the “only Western country” where marriage is strictly governed by religious authorities.
“Certainly Israel is excellent as compared to its immediate geographic surroundings. We can’t forget that Iran hangs homosexuals; in Egypt, they jail them. But I think Israel’s standing is good compared to the world — even though obviously there are countries where it is better,” he says.
Addressing the murder of 16-year-old Shira Banki, who was stabbed to death at the Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade last summer, and amid an ongoing public debate over “incitement,” Ohana does not believe that religious “incitement” against the LGBT community drove the attack.
“I have a big disagreement with the Orthodox and Haredim on equality for LGBT,” he says. “But I greatly doubt that the despicable murderer Yishai Schlissel acted as he did — twice, within the span of 10 years — due to the defamatory statements that I hear sometimes from the religious community.
“Even if I disagree with my fellow MKs from the Orthodox community, I think the mainstream doesn’t want me dead or [seeks] the death of my friends, or the death of anyone from the gay community. There are disagreements, on matters of rights, on matters of recognition.”
Wrapping up, Ohana concedes that entering the coalition at this time will be “difficult,” but remains optimistic he will be able to effect change.
“I know it will be difficult. It will be difficult because we are in a very complicated, problematic coalition. Not because it includes Haredim — nearly every coalition has Haredim — but because it’s a 61-member coalition, which nearly gives a veto right to every coalition member… in this sense, I know it will be difficult to pass laws, but as I said before, the bills are not everything.”