Chili Tropper. (Yanai Yechiel)
Yanai Yechiel
Interview'We're centrists, even if you label us as left 1,000 times'

Political life isn’t easy for Gantz, and that’s a good thing, says closest aide

Gantz is out ‘to make the country better,’ says Chili Tropper, Blue and White head’s confidant, speechwriter, and No. 12. ‘Bibi has drive and no boundaries; Benny has boundaries’

Main image by Yanai Yechiel

The first thing one notices in the enormous rooms occupied by the Blue and White party in the Expo Tel Aviv convention center is the placidity. People are working quietly, talking quietly, even laughing quietly. Compared to Likud’s well-known volume, there is something alien, even cold, in the atmosphere here.

Chili Tropper is also talking quietly. The tape recorder needs to be placed closer to him in order to pick up his soft voice. One can only guess whether anything would irritate him. This no-drama attitude, he says, is one of the traits he shares with the head of his party, Benny Gantz. “I haven’t heard him raise his voice even once,” Tropper claims.

The two have much more than calmness in common. Over the past four years, and mainly since Gantz decided to throw his hat into the political ring, Tropper, 40, has been considered Gantz’s closest confidant, the party’s main speechwriter, and a high-level strategist who stands at every significant crossroads encountered by this new political conglomerate.

The current election campaign marks the second entrance of Tropper, an educator from the village of Nes Harim in central Israel, into the political arena. In 2013, he heeded Shelly Yachimovich’s call to run in the Labor primaries as part of an attempt to show that the left wing includes religiously observant people. His run was a faint echo of Meimad, a dovish, religious political movement that his father helped found in his Jerusalem living room 30 years ago, and that ran with Labor as a political faction from 1999 to 2006.

Chairwoman Shelly Yachimovich, center, introduces former Sayeret Matkal commander Omer Bar-Lev, left, and educator Chili Tropper as new recruits to the Labor Party in October (photo credit: Roni Schutzer/Flash90)
Chairwoman Shelly Yachimovich, center, introduces former Sayeret Matkal commander Omer Bar-Lev, left, and educator Chili Tropper as new recruits to the Labor Party in October 2012 (photo credit: Roni Schutzer/Flash90)

Tropper achieved the 23rd slot in the 2013 Labor primaries, with no chance of getting into the Knesset. (Labor won 15 seats in that election). He was appointed adviser to then-education minister Shai Piron of the Yesh Atid party, who resigned the post some 18 months later, when Yesh Atid left the government. At that point, Tropper became director of the Education, Welfare and Culture Division in the southern town of Yeruham.

A short time later, he was introduced to Gantz by a mutual friend, Hod Betzer, who was looking for a key figure to help the former IDF chief of staff find a place in the world of education and welfare. They have been close associates ever since.

Benny Gantz arrives at his first campaign event for his Israel Resilience party in Tel Aviv on January 29, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Tropper, who is married to Tzufit and a father of four, comes to this political round a good deal stronger. He occupies the 12th slot on the Blue and White list, and if inside gossip is to be believed, he is also Gantz’s candidate for education minister — a rumor Tropper refuses to confirm or deny, saying only, “Right now, we are all putting our individual dreams aside.”

In many ways, the new party — a mixture of ideals and connections — suits Tropper perfectly. “I believe in putting the old controversies aside and dealing with the internal issues of Israeli society,” he says.

Does that mean you came up with the party’s slogan ‘There is no longer a right or left,’ which received quite a bit of mockery?

“No, though I identify with it. Let’s put the campaign aside for a moment. Obviously, there are still right-wing and left-wing opinions in Israel in both the political and economic spheres. But the gaps are smaller than the public thinks. The price of this discourse is that we aren’t dealing with any other issues, such as healthcare, for example. When it comes to healthcare, there is no right or left.”

I don’t agree. Healthcare is also a zero-sum game of money and budgets. And then there’s the question of whether money is given to the settlements in Judea and Samaria or to healthcare.

“This is where you’re falling into Israel’s classic stereotypes. Someone like Yoaz Hendel [No. 9 on the Blue and White slate], as a right-wing symbol, will also tell you that today’s primary agenda is the communities around the perimeter of Gaza and Kiryat Shmona, not necessarily the settlements.”

Echoes of Meimad

Tropper first learned about “making connections” at home, with his nine brothers and sisters. In 1969, long before Meimad, his father, Dr. Daniel Tropper, founded a nonprofit organization called Gesher, whose goals include rapprochement among the different movements of Judaism. Tropper senior, from New York, and his wife, Faygie, from Los Angeles, immigrated to Israel in 1967 with their two oldest children. The other eight, including Chili, were born in Jerusalem.

Rabbi Danny Tropper at his home in Jerusalem (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

It was through Gesher that the elder Tropper met Rabbi Yehuda Amital, a connection that led to the establishment in 1988 of Meimad — the most prominent attempt thus far to sever the growing link between religious observance and nationalism, and break the connection between religion and the idea of Greater Israel.

Rabbi Yehuda Amital. (Flash90)

While Meimad did not pass the electoral threshold in the November 1988 election, Amital was appointed a minister without portfolio in Shimon Peres’s government after prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995. Four years later, a Meimad representative made it into the Knesset on the “One Israel” list of Ehud Barak and Labor. Meimad has not existed since then, either practically or ideologically.

“I believe the moderate stream within Religious Zionism has not disappeared, although were Meimad to run today, it probably wouldn’t pass the electoral threshold. But Religious Zionism is scattered in all directions; thus I myself have nothing in common with [Itamar] Ben Gvir [of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party] — his Torah is not my Torah, his God is not my God,” says Tropper.

“Blue and White corresponds to the ideas of Meimad, such as public transportation on the Sabbath in non-religious areas, and civil marriage. We are signaling to the Jewish world that we understand their pain, that they were forgotten and betrayed; and we will make sure to pass the Kotel agreement [providing for a permanent pluralistic prayer pavilion at the Western Wall with joint oversight including representatives of non-Orthodox religious Judaism] as well as a conversion plan that includes them as well.”

Then Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset, April 22, 2013 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Asked if he had consulted with his father before joining Gantz, he says: “My father is the most significant man in my life, so of course I spoke with him. He had reservations and I don’t know whether he’s going to vote for us, to tell the truth. My father is right-wing, after all, and for him we’re… well… not a real left-wing, but too centrist.

“The conventional division among the religious population is still based on the political right-wing or left-wing, and when it comes to this division, my family is soft right, but still on the right. Most of them are in the area of Likud and [New Right party co-head] Naftali Bennett. But we’ve been discussing the party on our family’s WhatsApp group, and I’ve managed to convince three of my sisters,” he says proudly.

Is your father pleased that you’re running for the Knesset?

“He’s happy that I’m going into public service, but he’s concerned about the price that I could pay. My daughters brought home several videos in which [Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu takes aim at me personally, making me a target as if I were the leftist player behind Gantz. That’s worrisome, of course, particularly considering that Bibi has no red lines.”

If we’re talking about red lines, Gantz is suing the newspaper Israel Hayom over its allegations of sexual harassment. In this lawsuit, you’re suggesting explicitly, for the first time, that officials close to the prime minister could possibly be involved in making these false accusations against Gantz. Do you have proof?

“Yes, it’s clear to us that political players are involved, and [Likud minister] Miri Regev’s involvement has already been proven. I don’t want to say that Regev made everything up, but she and her office are involved in this harassment story. As far as Netanyahu is concerned, his leadership spirit is evident — the spirit that says that all’s fair and there are no boundaries. When you accuse Gantz of having abandoned Corporal Madhat Yusuf; when you say that he attended a concert that ‘commemorated terrorists,’ you’re setting a standard that isn’t the truth.”

With fake news abounding, why bring a libel suit? That only gives the topic more exposure.

“It’s not our way to file lawsuits frequently. We didn’t file a lawsuit over [the allegations regarding] Madhat Yusuf or over the claims regarding the concert that ‘commemorated terrorists.’ This particular case — accusing someone of sexual harassment that never happened — crossed a red line, and we decided that enough is enough.”

Former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz (C) is greeted by supporters as he arrives to give his first electoral speech in the coastal city of Tel Aviv on January 29, 2019. (Jack Guez/AFP)

You wrote Gantz’s first speech, which was a unifying speech with a very statesmanlike tone. Did you also write the second speech, in which Gantz lashed out at Netanyahu?

“I know what you’re looking for in asking that question, and I want to be loyal.”

It’s a very simple, factual question.

“I was involved in the first, second, and third speeches.”

That sounds odd, since the first and second speeches are completely different from one another. It seems as if the first one was written by an educator such as yourself, while the second one was written by a strategic consultant such as, say, Ronen Tzur.

Israel Resilience party chief Benny Gantz speaks at a party gathering in Tel Aviv on February 19, 2019, in a speech in which he castigated Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

“The first and second speeches are Chili Tropper together with Ronen Tzur, and with others as well. You must understand the context: the second speech came after several weeks of Netanyahu lashing at us with low, unbridled attacks that contained many lies, and everything was very personal against Benny. So in the second speech, we wanted to drive the message home to Netanyahu, saying: ‘Hello, hello, there’s a red line here. We’re not going take everything lying down — and certainly not lies or smears.’”

So that speech, together with the libel lawsuit, attests that you can be goaded into retaliating against Netanyahu, and so if he wants to, he can drag you down whenever it suits him?

“First of all, we couldn’t stoop to the level that he’s stooped to even if we tried. We’ll never say anything personal about anyone’s family or recruit bereaved families [to our cause]. We won’t talk about his wife or his children. We steer clear of that.

“I’ll give you an example: a bereaved mother who knows Benny well contacted us and asked to speak during the first event. Some people on the team said, ‘Great, let her speak.’ Benny said, ‘What are you talking about? I’ll never use a bereaved family’s story [at such an event].’ So we didn’t even get back to her, even though a speech like that could have been helpful.”

‘It’s good to feel a bit uncomfortable’

Tropper attended the Nahshon pre-military academy, served as a combat soldier and commander in the Duvdevan unit, and went into social and educational work immediately after his IDF discharge. He worked for two years as a counselor for members of street gangs in Jerusalem, and later established nonprofit organizations and foundations for needy families, with an emphasis on children and teenagers.

We aren’t anti-Arab, and most of our plans are completely relevant to the Israeli-Arab population — certainly in terms of plans for the periphery and disadvantaged populations. But we won’t make ourselves dependent on the Arab parties

As an educator, he worked in the Education and Social Division of the Bat Yam municipality, at the Educational Department of Yeruham, and, when he was 31, became principal of the Branco Weiss School for at-risk youth in Ramle, where he significantly increased the number of graduates.

Historically, educators have not been all that successful in politics.

“I see that as a compliment. If you were to tell me that education professionals did well in politics, I’d be worried, because I see it as a good thing to feel a bit uncomfortable, and to realize that you won’t always be familiar with the culture or the language.

“Here, too, I feel that it’s part of my natural connection with Benny. Political life isn’t easy for him either, and that’s a good thing. It hasn’t been easy for him to adapt to the lingo, for example. To me, it’s good to maintain that diversity at the right level. You don’t want to start playing by all the familiar rules right away. Otherwise, what’s the difference? We don’t pretend to be small and righteous, like Meretz or the Jewish Home. We’re a ruling party.”

If the goal is to create a rapprochement and bring society together, why are you vocally insistent that you’ll never collaborate as a bloc with the Arab parties?

“Your question stems right out of Netanyahu’s spin — that we have a plan to create a blocking coalition, while we keep stating that we don’t. We aren’t anti-Arab, and most of our plans are completely relevant to the Israeli-Arab population — certainly in terms of plans for the periphery and disadvantaged populations. But we won’t make ourselves dependent on the Arab parties.”

That’s old-style politics. You’re willing to depend on anyone except the Arab parties, since you know this is what the public likes to hear. That statement has a racist sound to it.

“What we’re doing is creating the Israeli center — somewhat like Kadima did in the past. You’re placing us on the left, as Netanyahu wants. For you, automatically, it’s ‘Blue and White, plus Meretz and the Arab parties,’ while I’m saying we’re a centrist bloc. Even if you try to label us as left-wing a thousand times, that’s not going to be my bloc.”

You told the Globes newspaper that, with Netanyahu, we have a “prime minister with an endless drive for power.” You said that as criticism, but if Gantz doesn’t have this kind of drive, that may not be advantageous.

“Benny has an intense drive to make the country better. That’s why he realizes that he should be prime minister. Bibi has a drive and no boundaries, but Benny has boundaries: What serves the country will be accepted, and what doesn’t serve the country will be rejected. We would never widen a rift, cause harm, or make anyone an object of hatred just to get ahead.”

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