Israel Elections: Chili Tropper - The nice guy determined to last

Blue and White minister says he still believes there is a place in the Knesset for the party as a “statesmanlike, moderate, responsible, honest, unhating party that puts the country first.”

Tropper: Seeking a unifying hand (photo credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)
Tropper: Seeking a unifying hand
(photo credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)
Ahead of the last election, while most politicians were focused on taking one more seat from their rival parties, Blue and White’s Chili Tropper was focused on giving.
Tropper donated a kidney to a complete stranger at Hadassah University Medical Center, saving their life.
It was a purely altruistic move for Tropper, and no one accused him of an odd publicity stunt, because he is known across the spectrum as the nicest guy in Israeli politics.
Soon afterward, Blue and White joined the government and Tropper became minister of culture and sport. He has spent the past year keeping both industries alive despite the pandemic, and the leaders of both have expressed their gratitude.
Now it is Blue and White and its leader, Benny Gantz, who are struggling to survive politically, with the 3.25% electoral threshold threatening the party in some polls. The party’s campaign and its slogan “Benny – the honest choice” have focused on the need to keep Gantz in politics, because he had proven his honesty and endured Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s political tricks.
Party officials speak about also wooing “Chili Tropper voters,” religious Zionists with moderate views who want their politicians to be modest, hard workers who genuinely care about serving the public – like Tropper, who is No. 3 on the Blue and White list in the March 23 election.
Tropper, 42, earned that reputation after a career as a social worker and educator in the periphery. Before joining politics, Tropper spent about 20 years working as a social activist and educator. For five years, he was principal of the Branco Weiss High School in Ramle for teens who had dropped out of the school system. He founded an NGO called B’Maagalei Tzedek that seeks to promote social justice in the spirit of Jewish tradition, and helped found Shachen Tov (Good Neighbor), a nonprofit that helps weak populations in Israeli society.
Born in Jerusalem, he is one of the nine children of New York immigrants Faigie and Rabbi Dr. Daniel Tropper, who is the founder of Gesher, which trains Israeli leaders to forge connections and unity between different sectors of the Jewish people in Israel and the Diaspora. He served in Duvdevan, the IDF unit that operates undercover in the West Bank, and was a candidate in the Labor Party before becoming close to Gantz and helping him found Blue and White.
In an interview conducted by phone between cabinet meetings and calls from Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, Tropper lamented that the coronavirus did not result in a government that could bring Israel long-needed cohesion. He does not regret joining the Likud-led government, but has plenty of regrets about how it was run.
“IT’S VERY sad,” he says. “To deal with a plague, you need internal unity and rising to the occasion. No one can say we didn’t try. But we stretched out a hand to the Likud and did not find a hand in return. We thought Netanyahu would rise to the moment, and we were proven wrong. He wasn’t interested in unity and partnership.”
Tropper has heard enough mockery of the “reconciliation cabinet” that he was set to head and has been misinterpreted.
“I wanted reconciliation not with Netanyahu but with the millions who didn’t vote for me,” he says. “The feeling was that the people of Israel wanted to unite in the midst of the plague against the plague of hate.”
He recalls that most Blue and White voters supported entering the government when the party did. He is still bitter at Yesh Atid for the pressure campaign aimed at getting him and other Blue and White ministers to leave the government.
“Their campaign was unnecessary from the start and I hope they stop,” Tropper said. “Lapid refused to honor the decision of the chairman of Blue and White. We paid a heavy price for entering the government.”
There are those in Blue and White who admit that tensions with the Likud could have been eased had Gantz accepted the Likud’s demand to appoint the easygoing Tropper to the sensitive post of justice minister, and not the much more militant Avi Nissenkorn, who had a reputation as a troublemaker. Nissenkorn ended up leaving the party even after Gantz fought the Likud to keep him in the post.
“Over time, amid Netanyahu’s behavior, there were those in our party who wanted to fight more and some who wanted to fight less,” Tropper recounts. “Some weren’t ethical. They wanted to be in Blue and White when it succeeded and didn’t want to be a part of it when it succeeded less. This is neither moral nor collegial.”
Tropper and other Blue and White leaders now warn that if the party is not reelected to the Knesset, Netanyahu could find the legal loopholes needed to fire them from the cabinet and appoint his own justice minister who would stop his criminal trial. He says that should be reason enough for Blue and White voters from the last elections to stay.
“Our actions in the government are significant,” he stresses. “Even those who are angry at me for being in the government tell us we have to stay there. They don’t want [Likud minister] Amir Ohana going back to the Justice Ministry and [outspoken Likud MK] Osnat Mark to be culture minister. We need to maintain our strongholds until a new government is formed. We have to stay here inside.”
Tropper says he still believes there is a place in the Knesset for Blue and White as a “statesmanlike, moderate, responsible, honest, unhating party that puts the country first.”
“I can look in the mirror and say I always did what’s right for the country,” he states. “That is the reason our voters are coming back.”
After months of Blue and White being the punching bag of the anti-Netanyahu camp, if the party crosses the threshold, it is expected to become a sought-after partner.
Everyone is talking about polls showing Yamina as possible kingmaker after the election, because Naftali Bennett’s party could back either Netanyahu or an anti-Netanyahu candidate.
IN HIS capacity as minister of culture and sport, paying respects to late Israeli poet Nathan Zach at Tel Aviv’s Tzavta Theatre this past November. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)IN HIS capacity as minister of culture and sport, paying respects to late Israeli poet Nathan Zach at Tel Aviv’s Tzavta Theatre this past November. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
What they could talk about after the election is Blue and White as the kingmaker within the anti-Netanyahu camp. While Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman has committed himself to supporting the head of the largest party in the camp – almost certain to be Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid – and Labor leader Merav Michaeli has hinted she will do the same, Blue and White leaders have made no such commitment.
Tropper says recommending Lapid, Bennett and New Hope leader Gideon Sa’ar to President Reuven Rivlin to form the next government are all options.
“We’ll decide whom to recommend based on the results,” Tropper says. “Anyone who can replace Netanyahu is an option for us. It doesn’t have to be the leader of the largest faction. It has to be the person with the most recommendations to the president.”
But to get that power, Tropper says he knows he and his Blue and White colleagues will have to work hard between now and Election Day.
“We need to focus on these last weeks. When the dust settles, there are those who tweet or scream better than me. But people like our diverse team, and we know how to work.”
MEANWHILE, TROPPER continues fighting for his cabinet ministry, knowing it will take time for the culture and sport industries to recover from the pandemic which shut them down, due to their dependence on their audiences. The two industries employ 150,000 Israelis, says Tropper.
“The fight is ethical and far from done,” he insists. “It continues every day. We helped them stay above water. Without our support, cultural institutions would have collapsed and closed. We did a lot for them.”
Tropper is now seeing the results of his efforts. He made a point of attending a game of his beloved Hapoel Jerusalem basketball team last Saturday night, and before that attended performances at the capital’s Khan Theater. He saw tears in the eyes of attendees, many of whom were elderly people who had not left their homes in a year.
“The coronavirus didn’t close the gates to hearts,” he says. “I love this ministry and I’d be happy to stay in it if given the chance, because I didn’t get to see it blossom.
“My heart also remains in education, but wherever I will be, I will serve the people.”