Netanyahu and Bennett.
(photo credit: REUTERS,MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
While Naftali Bennett’s initial decision to pick soccer legend Eli Ohana for the number eight shirt in his starting lineup for the Bayit Yehudi’s Knesset list proved to be a major tactical error on the part of the national-religious party’s leader, it is a shame that Ohana will not grace Israel’s parliament in the same way he shone on the pitch for so many seasons.
The raucous opposition to Ohana’s selection and harsh criticism of Bennett, which eventually caused the footballer to withdraw his candidacy, came from two worrying standpoints within the Bayit Yehudi party, one religious, the other condescending, verging on the racist.
The objection of the strictly observant, almost haredi (ultra-Orthodox), faction of Bayit Yehudi to Ohana’s appearance in their team is clear and easy to understand: for many years Ohana plied his trade on Shabbat, encouraging thousands of people to spend their Saturday afternoons chewing sunflower seeds and watching grown men kick a ball around a field. For such people, Ohana is not a representative figure.
But Bennett was not looking to Ohana to win the support of these voters. For the Bayit Yehudi leader, Ohana was a way to reach out to the more traditional, mostly Sephardi electorate, for whom there is no contradiction between going to synagogue on a Shabbat morning followed by soccer in the afternoon.
Unfortunately this path of religious moderation and straddling two walks of life is becoming less and less common in Israel as a creeping haredization replaces a more moderate and tolerant traditional Judaism.
Bennett’s failure to understand just how strong this hardline trend is within his own community highlights his own outsider status within the party he leads.
The other objections to Ohana also stem from his past as a footballer: the condescending assumption that, by definition, a footballer from a poor background lacks the smarts to be a politician. But a quick glance around the outgoing Knesset shows that it is not entirely made up of people of intellect, or that a past career is necessarily an indication of a person’s political potential. Yisrael Beytenu’s impressive legislator Orly Levy-Abekasis first made her impression on the country as a model while her father, Likud legend David Levy, climbed his way to the top from a building site.
If Yair Lapid, a talented television presenter who candidly admitted to having no understanding of economics, could become finance minister, what’s to stop a former footballer who also, by the way, is an articulate television analyst on the sports channel, from being a Knesset member.
It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the second objection to Ohana stems from the fact that he comes from, as Ayelet Shaked, Bennett’s number two, so elegantly phrased it, a traditional Sephardi home with a tough childhood. When uber-Ashkenazi former basketball player Tal Brody was endorsed as a potential Likud candidate some years back by Benjamin Netanyahu, there were no snide comments about Brody’s suitability to be a Knesset member despite his sporting past or his Hebrew lacking any of the depth of Ohana’s. It’s at times like these that one understands the roots of Shas’ success.
Of course, not all footballers are blessed with brains outside of the soccer pitch, with Liverpool striker Mario Balotelli providing a classic example of this. A talented but troubled individual, Balotelli often hits the headlines in Britain for his erratic behavior, as highlighted by the occasion when he and his friends set his house on fire by letting off fireworks indoors. The next day, when celebrating a goal he scored against Manchester United, he lifted up his team shirt to reveal a T-shirt underneath with the words “Why always me?”
It wouldn’t surprise me if Prime Minister Netanyahu wears a similar vest under his shirt; the stories continue to pile up concerning the erratic and possibly criminal behavior inside his household. Just when it seems we can no longer be shocked by Sara Netanyahu’s treatment of her staff (a running story that goes back as far as Netanyahu’s first election campaign in 1996 and Sara’s hounding of her children’s nanny at the time), we now learn that Israel’s self-appointed first lady has become a contender for Israel’s number one recycler and has already pocketed the prize money.
Netanyahu claims that the stories about his wife are unfair and untrue, and that the media picks on her in order to undermine him. In his Facebook posts, the prime minister argues that Sara is a private individual who deserves to be left alone. If Sara shunned the limelight in the same way that Sonia Peres or Aliza Olmert did, then it would be hard to argue with him, but this is far from the case. The prime minister’s wife has always insisted her presence be acknowledged and by doing so she has turned herself into a public figure, open to scrutiny, particularly in cases where the public purse is involved.
Both Bennett and Netanyahu have suffered from damaging own goals over the past week; the question now is whether the Zionist Camp can press home an advantage and achieve the result this country so badly needs come polling day.The writer is a former editor-in-chief of
The Jerusalem Post.