The Right Tzipi?

How do you get to be an MK at 30? Meet Tzipi Hotovely, running in guaranteed 18th slot on Likud list.

tzipi hotovely 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
tzipi hotovely 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
How do you get to be a member of Knesset at the ripe age of 30? You need the right combination of talent and luck. And it doesn't hurt if Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu watched you on TV and liked you. That is the recipe that has brought 30-year-old Tzipi Hotovely to the guaranteed 18th slot on the Likud list ahead of the February 10 general election. The youngest Knesset candidate running on a realistic slot in an established party, Hotovely will almost certainly be the youngest MK in the next Knesset, a title held in the past by the likes of Inbal Gavrieli and Alex Miller. But Hotovely is determined to make a much better impression. She became a household name in Israel through a weekly political television show called Moetzet Hahachamim (Council of Sages), which pitted her against top veteran journalists. She was the only woman, only right-winger and only religious panelist, yet held her own against a cadre of left-wing, aging secular men. Now she intends to do the same in a Knesset where the overwhelming majority of MKs are aging, secular men. But she hopes that after the election, the majority of the legislators will be right-wing. In an interview at a Jerusalem café, Hotovely introduced herself to readers who have never seen her on TV, vowed to help improve Israel's public relations, and revealed what she learned from the American political system. Hotovely's path to the Knesset started in Rehovot, where she was born to parents of Georgian descent. After attending top religious-Zionist schools, she was sent to the other Georgia as an emissary for the Bnai Akiva youth movement in Atlanta. She taught at the Orthodox Hebrew Academy of Atlanta and at Reform and Conservative Sunday schools, traveled across the country and learned a lot about American Jewish life. After graduating with honors from Bar-Ilan University's law school, Hotovely interned at a top Tel Aviv law firm, returned to edit Bar-Ilan's law review and started studying for a doctorate at Tel Aviv University. Her life changed forever when a producer for Channel 1's Erev Hadash (New Evening) current affairs program called her when the show needed a young religious Zionist woman for a debate. The producer found Hotovely because of an article she had posted online. The show's host, Dan Margalit, liked Hotovely and brought her on his higher profile Channel 10 show, Council of Sages, which attracted a cult following. Hotovely became known as a fierce critic of the Second Lebanon War and one of the first people who called for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to resign. Margalit, himself a vocal Olmert critic, told her that he thought she would be in the Knesset some day. But when Hotovely won her slot on the Likud list, he admitted he didn't think it would happen quite so soon. "Taking me on his show was a gamble that paid off for Dan Margalit," Hotovely said. "I hope that Bibi's gamble will pay off too." Netanyahu watched Hotovely represent the Right on the show week after week on a number of different topics. He invited her to meet with him as a journalist a few times. Meanwhile, she started writing opinion pieces for Ma'ariv and a regular column for the newspaper's web site on Judaism. In November, when the election approached and Netanyahu realized that the Likud needed more female candidates, his office invited Hotovely to meet with him. Netanyahu surprised her when he asked her to run in the party's upcoming primary. "I will be happy if you are on the list of Likud candidates," Netanyahu told her. "I want principled people on the list who are not political hacks. I will support you and make it clear that you are one of my endorsed candidates." Hotovely, who was only due to turn 30 on December 2, did not give an immediate answer. But after consulting with friends and family, she decided it was a chance of a lifetime that could not be missed, and she announced her candidacy at a November 11 press conference with Netanyahu at the Likud's Tel Aviv headquarters. "PEOPLE HAD told me for years that I would eventually run for Knesset, but I never actually thought I would," she said this week. "It was a tough decision but it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be part of the ruling party at a critical time." The next task was to get elected by the Likud's 100,000 members in the party's December 8 primary, which was no small challenge considering that she would face off against candidates who had already served in the Knesset and others who had been campaigning nonstop for several years. "A lot of people said I had no chance because I didn't know the Likud activists," Hotovely said. "But Bibi kept his promise and helped a lot. I was on his list of endorsed candidates that was leaked to the media. And I had name recognition from the show, which is important in a race with so many voters. Because of the show, I wasn't someone new to them." There were a couple of realistic slots on the list reserved for women who had never served in the Knesset. But Hotovely did not end up needing them. She beat well-known former MKs like Gila Gamliel and Pnina Rosenblum and won the 18th slot on the list, just one slot behind high-profile former justice minister Dan Meridor. Hotovely was one of five religious candidates elected to the Likud's top 22 slots. No poll has shown either of the two religious-Zionist parties winning that many seats. Hotovely said she hopes that this election will be a turning point for religious-Zionism turning to the Likud to represent it instead of sectarian parties. "I always believed the American model of two large parties was right, because it's necessary to govern better," Hotovely said. "Religious-Zionism is undergoing a change in thought, but it's been a long process. Netanyahu has committed to the two issues more important to religious Zionists: advancing education and ensuring that there will be no further unilateral withdrawals in Judea and Samaria." Those are the two issues that Hotovely wants to concentrate on in the Knesset. Hotovely said she would try to push the Likud rightward and advocate on behalf of strengthening Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria. Asked whether she would become a "Likud rebel" if Netanyahu withdrew from territories in the West Bank, she said, "I don't like the word rebel. If someone goes against the party platform, they are the rebel." Hotovely wants more Judaism restored to the secular education system and for all Israeli children to be required to visit key holy and historic sites. She said she would mandate 10 days of acquainting Israelis with the Jewish state modeled after the birthright Israel program. Hotovely worked for birthright as an inspector to make sure the program was being maximized. Other issues Hotovely wants to focus on are improving Israel's public relations and strengthening ties between America and Israel. Hotovely said she learned a lot from Diaspora Jews, both in her year living in Atlanta from 1997 to 1998 and in a month she spent in South Africa on behalf of the World Union of Jewish Students in 2001. She spoke at a WUJS conference there on the Arab-Israeli conflict and religious-secular relations. Hotovely suggested forming a team of professionals in communications to help out the Foreign Ministry in explaining Israel's policies to the foreign press, which she would want to be a part of. "Every Israeli step needs massive international support," Hotovely said. "The world needs to know that justice is on our side. Israeli hasbara is too apologetic." But while Hotovely would want to represent Israel debating Arabs in the foreign press, the person she would want to debate more than any other is the woman who shares her name in Kadima, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. Hotovely's slogan in her primary race was "The Right Tzipi for the Likud." "Tzipi Livni heads a party with no ideology, principles or spine," Hotovely said. "In key tests, she didn't prove herself as a leader. But I have no problem with the name."