Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett’s decision to appoint soccer legend Eli Ohana to the top 10 of the party’s candidates list infuriated party activists and voters on Tuesday.
Activists took to social media to express disappointment in Bennett’s choice, especially in light of the fact that Ohana supported the 2005 Gaza disengagement and said in an interview at the time that he didn’t think it would a problem if the government dismantled all settlements.
“I don’t know how to spin this [positively]. The base is very angry,” a senior party operative said.
Referring to the addition of Ohana, whose parents immigrated to Israel from Morocco, as an attempt to attract voters of Middle Eastern and North African descent, he said: “I know we get Sephardi traditional Likud voters out of this...
but Sephardi [Bayit Yehudi members] are the angriest.
He doesn’t represent us one bit.”
On Tuesday morning, Bennett announced he will put academic Anat Roth on the list. Roth is a former Peace Now activist and adviser to former prime minister Ehud Barak and ex-Labor chairman Amram Mitzna, who became right-wing while researching the disengagement and is now religious and works at Megalim – The City of David Institute for Jerusalem Studies.
Channel 1 reported that Roth is still a member of Labor, though it is illegal to be a member of two parties.
Putting Roth on the list will bump Yehudit Shilat, director of the Forum Takana against sexual abuse, from a spot reserved for a woman between 10th and 15th place on the Bayit Yehudi Knesset candidates, even though Shilat received 1,375 more votes than Roth in the primary.
Party sources said Shilat is more conservative and older than the image Bennett seeks for his party, but Shilat told Army Radio that is a “cover story,” and that Bennett didn’t like her because she is a “strong and independent woman.”
Bennett “isn’t promoting someone new, he’s pushing back the person the voters chose... He needs to explain to the voters why he did that,” Shilat said.
A source close to Bennett said that on Monday night, when Ohana’s addition was announced, the party leader had no plans to add Roth, and the former left-wing activist even complained about being left off the list.
Her subsequent addition was a response to the anger from his base.
The strategy seemed to have backfired, however, as activists expressed disappointment that Bennett was exercising his right to appoint people to the list, rather than respecting their choices in the primary, as he said he would do shortly after the vote. Some said Bennett’s decisions indicate he was dishonest in repeatedly saying the elected list was excellent and he was happy with it.
“Voters feel disrespected,” the senior party operative explained.
On Radio 103 FM, Bennett said that he is using his authority “to fix and balance the primary’s results.”
Bayit Yehudi released a video to introduce Ohana to voters, in which he said he had “sobered up” politically and “there is no future for us here if we continue withdrawing from parts of our land and there is no future for us here if we will be weak.”
Ohana described his childhood living in the Asbestonim refugee camp between Jerusalem’s Kiryat Hayovel and Kiryat Menachem neighborhoods and working, starting at age 16, to support his family, which he said he never forgot, despite his successes on the soccer pitch as player and coach.
Bennett said that Ohana, as someone who knows what poverty is like, can lead on social issues.
“There is criticism in our home, but as a leader, I have to take steps that aren’t always popular,” Bennett told Israel Radio. “Our party doesn’t just belong to the religious, it’s for all Jewish people.”
As for Ohana’s former support for the disengagement, Bennett said, comparing him to Roth: “He made a mistake and he said he understood he was wrong.
Why shouldn’t I open our door to him?” When Batya Kahana-Dror, a candidate in the party’s primary earlier this month, said territorial concessions may be necessary in some cases, she was spurned by Bayit Yehudi. The party spokesman sent a statement that the party is united in opposition to a two-state solution, and Kahana-Dror dropped out of the race the night before the vote.
Bayit Yehudi faction chairwoman Ayelet Shaked said she was against appointing people to the candidates list, but defended Bennett’s choice.
In a message to party activists, Shaked wrote: “Let’s admit the truth. I’m the only non-religious person in the party; there is one. Naftali wanted bring in a traditional, Sephardic person who had a difficult childhood and succeeded.
I’ve never spoken to [Ohana], but I was told he’s intelligent. All of our MKs [besides myself] are religious and most are Ashkenazi... I checked, and he repented on the disengagement issue.
He is right-wing and wants to work on social issues.
Let’s give him a chance.”
Shas called Shaked’s message, which was originally reported on Army Radio, “backwards and racist” and demanded that Shaked, who is of mixed Ashkenazi-Sephardi descent, apologize.
“The intelligent Ayelet Shaked,” the Shas spokesman began sarcastically, “revealed her true face this morning in her treatment of the ignored Sephardic community.
Sephardic is not a product on a shelf that Ashkenazim buy before an election.”
Former journalist Yinon Magal, who was appointed to the Bayit Yehudi list before the primary, tweeted: “We need Ohana in order to turn Bayit Yehudi into a leading party.
Naftali, great job. Ohana, thanks for joining us.”
MK Zvulun Kalfa dropped out of the unrealistic 18th spot in Bayit Yehudi, calling Ohana’s appointment “an insult to the public” the list is supposed to represent. He may move to former Shas leader Eli Yishai’s Yachad party.
Kalfa is in Tekuma, a party running on the Bayit Yehudi list, and had advocated for the party to run with Yachad.
Next in Tekuma is its director- general, Nachi Eyal.
Tekuma leader and Construction Minister Uri Ariel asked Kalfa to take his resignation back, calling him “an excellent parliamentarian and one of the best public figures in the country.”