The timing of the MK Oren Hazan (Likud) scandal could not be worse for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Less than a week before Sunday’s Likud central committee vote on whether to give itself the power to choose the party’s lists for future Knessets or to maintain the current, open primary system, which Netanyahu supports, Channel 2 reported that Likud’s 30th MK – who was elected in a primary – allegedly pimped out prostitutes and provided crystal meth to gamblers at a casino he ran in Bulgaria.
Senior Likud sources say the prime minister was caught completely by surprise when the reports emerged.
The next day, when Netanyahu was at an event meant to convince central committee members not to cancel the primary, he was asked to denounce Hazan on stage and awkwardly remained silent, as heard in a recording played on Army Radio Wednesday.
Six months ago, Hazan burst on to the political scene in his Likud primary run for the young adult spot, No. 30 on the list, saved for candidates 35 or under. He filmed a Godfather-inspired campaign video that stood out for its sheer audacity.
With the mafia film’s iconic theme playing in the background, Hazan said he had an offer the people of Israel can’t refuse. His father, former MK Yehiel Hazan, who was caught voting twice – once for himself and also on the panel of an absent MK – on a bill, spoke in a Marlon Brandoesque wheeze and told him to clear the family name.
Despite what seemed like long odds for the Likud to win 30 seats, Netanyahu quietly supported Hazan, because as far as the Likud leader was concerned, the alternative was much worse. Hazan was up against Shai Malka, aide to then-MK Moshe Feiglin, whose faction within Likud, Manhigut Yehudit, Netanyahu has always sought to marginalize, even more so after Feiglin became an often-rebellious legislator.
When the Likud won the election by a margin so big it surprised even the greatest optimists in the party, the unexpected 30th Likud MK immediately piqued the press’s interest.
It became clear that Hazan was the closest thing to a frat boy the Knesset had ever seen. He ran a casino in Bulgaria, where gambling is legal, and a bar in Tel Aviv, and had plenty of Facebook photos of himself partying.
Sketch comedy show Eretz Nehederet jumped on the opportunity, creating a version of Hazan who offers the prime minister nachos and tries to turn the Knesset into Animal House.
Hazan started his work with the aura of a minor celebrity.
High school students visiting the Knesset on school trips would stop him in the hall and ask to take selfies with him – as did quite a few journalists and even MKs.
Hazan embraced his television alter ego, even referring to the jokes on Eretz Nehederet in his tweets.
Though he denied running a casino, he essentially said that he’s young, he likes to have a good time, and that is nothing to be ashamed of.
He peppered his speeches with corny puns – a memorable one was that the only thing that is kavush, a Hebrew word for both “occupied” and “pickled,” are the cucumbers in his fridge, not the West Bank – and played a prank, turning off the lights in the middle of a committee meeting.
When the time came for jobs to be distributed, somehow Hazan came out with membership in five different Knesset committees, including Foreign Affairs and Defense as well as Finance, and the deputy Knesset speaker position. Many analysts presented this as a victory for Hazan resulting from him threatening to vote against the coalition. The truth is that if Hazan’s titles were a victory, they were a Pyrrhic one. Five committees – even if two of them are very prestigious – means a ton of work and running from one to the next all day, and the deputy Knesset speaker position involves long hours and late nights, even for a Knesset member, and less authority than the title sounds like it carries.
Hazan wore his new titles smugly and did not heed more senior Likud lawmakers’ advice to lower his profile so people would take him seriously.
“Stop treating me like a child,” he whined at a Likud faction meeting, leading a fellow MK to remark afterward that he should stop acting like one.
On Monday night, Hazan went from the mostly harmless class clown and ultimate selfie partner of the 20th Knesset to suspected pimp and crystal meth user, a persona non grata to the point that his own party was trying to find ways to get him out of the Knesset.
Hazan unequivocally denied the allegations, but his subsequent threats to Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein that he’ll dig up stories about him and release them to the press probably hinders the public’s ability to give Hazan the benefit of the doubt.
Despite all that, Hazan will probably enjoy a long lame duck period in which taxpayers will pay his salary of over NIS 38,000 per month for doing nothing. The hard-partying MK says he is not going anywhere, and there is no way to remove an elected official from the legislature unless he is convicted of a crime with moral turpitude.
While Hazan could be put on trial for crimes committed in Bulgaria, the procedure is complicated and the likelihood it will happen seems slim.
Even the Knesset Ethics Committee – which has not been formed yet for the 20th Knesset – will have trouble finding a loophole to allow it to punish an MK for things he did before being elected.
So Edelstein already decided he won’t assign him any shifts as Knesset speaker, and the Likud will have to decide whether setting a public example and removing him from committees is more important than having enough representatives around so the coalition doesn’t lose votes.
All this is a headache that Netanyahu didn’t need while he furiously works to convince the central committee to keep the primaries open, because the prime minister thinks changing the system will lose the Likud votes in the next election.
But neither the 3,600 central committee members who elected Yehiel Hazan nor the 100,000 Likud members who elected Oren Hazan were able to keep the Likud away from scandals.
Perhaps, instead of changing the way the list is chosen, Netanyahu and the Likud should work on a better vetting system and avoid more headaches in the future.