Amichai Chikli: The first rebel in Israel's government has no regrets

Chikli has voted against the government more than 700 more times, built up his right-wing credentials and became the household name in Israel that he might not have been as a junior minister.

 AMICHAI CHIKLI: Chose the long short path. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
AMICHAI CHIKLI: Chose the long short path.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Amichai Chikli could have gone with the flow.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett placed the head of the pre-army Tavor Academy in Nof Hagalil high on the Yamina list to attract secular right-wing voters and serve Bennett as a loyal soldier.

Had Chikli behaved, he could have been rewarded with a portfolio in the current government. He also could have quit the Knesset and received a respectable post outside of politics.

But when Bennett broke political promises and formed a government with left-wing parties, Chikli, 40, decided to remain loyal to his principles rather than to the prime minister. He stayed in the Knesset, voted against the government upon its formation and became the first Yamina MK to rebel against Bennett.

Since then, Chikli has voted against the government more than 700 more times, built up his right-wing credentials and became the household name in Israel that he might not have been as a junior minister.

 PRECARIOUS PRIME minister: ‘Naftali [Bennett] already fell.’ (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90) PRECARIOUS PRIME minister: ‘Naftali [Bennett] already fell.’ (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

Other rebels have since followed Chikli. Bennett’s government is now teetering. And whenever elections are called, Chikli is expected to form a new party on the Right that opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu is counting on succeeding in order to enable him to build a coalition.

It could be an uphill battle for Chikli, who served in the Golani Brigade and Shayetet 13 and Egoz special unit. But in an interview with the Magazine at his office in the Knesset, Chikli explains why he feels vindicated about the decisions he has made since he got elected and why he is confident that he has a bright future ahead in politics.

“I am happy that in the choice between a short long path and a long short path, I chose the latter.”

Amichai Chikli

“I am happy that in the choice between a short long path and a long short path, I chose the latter,” Chikli said, citing a story from the Talmud. “I don’t see what I have done as defeating Naftali Bennett but as bringing victory to Zionism. There are a lot more obstacles to pass, but we are on the way there.”

Chikli had warned Bennett that a government with Alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid, Meretz and the Ra’am (United Arab List) Party would be short-lived, contentious and harmful. The results in his eyes are worse than he predicted.

“I knew the shortcut to power that Naftali took would bring disaster, which we see every day,” he said. “There has been extortion of millions of shekels for the Arab sector. The Palestinian flags that have emerged on the campuses of Ben-Gurion [University of the Negev] and Tel Aviv University are proof that a government that came to power on the back of the Black Flag protest movement ends up with Palestinian flags on our campuses.”

The decision of former coalition chairwoman Idit Silman to defect to the opposition took Chikli by surprise. She did not consult with him, nor have they coordinated since then.

“I told her ‘better late than never’ and ‘congratulations,’” he said. “She understood late the price paid by Zionism and Jewish issues for this government’s formation.”

The next rebellion, Chikli said, is only a matter of time.

“Naftali already fell,” he said. “He lost the people closest to him. All his Yamina MKs except for one are coordinating against him, and I know that as a fact. Israel is in a strange place: It has a prime minister who has only one MK behind him.”

Chikli said he had no idea whether the government would be brought down from the Right or the Left and whether an election would be initiated or an alternative government in the current Knesset. He said that did not matter as much as the Bennett government being stopped.

“My perspective is wide and long-term,” he said. “I can’t forecast the future, but it is clear that this government has finished its days. The government has no support from the public, and it is challenged in the Knesset. The political situation of May 2021 when it was formed and May 2022 are not the same, and therefore it cannot continue.”

Despite indications throughout the campaign that Bennett was planning all along to form a government that would oust Netanyahu, Chikli insisted that he “had no shadow of an inclination” that Bennett would go in such a direction.

“I thought he was authentic,” he said. “I saw him move rightward at the end of the campaign, and that is what kept us above the electoral threshold. He made promises wherever he went – in person, on TV, on Facebook Live, Zoom and every possible platform – that he wouldn’t let a left-wing government be formed and wouldn’t let Lapid become prime minister.”

THOSE WERE points that Chikli and his attorney made repeatedly in an April 25 Knesset House Committee hearing in which he was officially declared a defector in a 7-0 vote in which only coalition MKs participated. That designation means that he cannot run for the next Knesset with any faction in the current one, including the Likud. He also could not be appointed a minister if a new government is formed by Netanyahu in this Knesset.

Chikli is looking forward to challenging that decision in the Jerusalem District Court, where he believes he will get a much fairer trial.

“The petition will be exciting,” he said. “[Winning this case] will be important not just for me but for all MKs. If a party leader can gather quotes of an MK not supporting him and have him declared a defector for that, it weakens the Knesset

“The defector law was intended to prevent buying off MKs with cars and titles and to protect voters so that the MKs they elect won’t leave their ideology. I will prove in court that the person who defected for the most senior post in the state is not me but Naftali Bennett.”

Chikli said he has plenty of evidence against Bennett, including that he has taken steps to legalize Bedouin communities and not unauthorized outposts in Judea and Samaria; and approved after-the-fact the building violations in the Arab and Bedouin sectors rather than in the Jewish communities over the Green Line, which he had vowed to support during the campaign.

 BEDOUIN BONE to pick: Bedouin village Khan al-Ahmar in Area C of the West Bank. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90) BEDOUIN BONE to pick: Bedouin village Khan al-Ahmar in Area C of the West Bank. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

He blasted Bennett for “whitewashing unprecedented crimes in construction” and accused him of strengthening not Ra’am leader Mansour Abbas but extremist Israeli-Arab leaders such as northern Islamic Movement head Sheikh Raed Salah.

We will need to reset relations with the Arab minority and uproot from the Knesset anyone who calls for Israel’s destruction explicitly or indirectly,” he said.

There were those who expected Chikli to quit the Knesset immediately after he was declared a defector, which would have enabled him to still have the option of running with the Likud. His parliamentary activity is limited, without a faction backing him, so staying does not help him accomplish much. But for Chikli, remaining in the parliament is a matter of principle.

“I am not quitting the Knesset, because I cannot abandon the public that voted Yamina and wanted it to be on the Right.”

Amichai Chikli

“I am not quitting the Knesset, because I cannot abandon the public that voted Yamina and wanted it to be on the Right,” he said. “Quitting would fold the ideological banner that belongs to the voters, not to me.”

Looking to the future

Chikli is looking to keep those voters in the next election. He has not made a final decision yet to form a new party, but he is being pushed in that direction because he believes there must be more than two parties on the Right in the next Knesset.

“Ideologically and sociologically, there is a public where Yamina and New Hope were that won’t vote for a haredi nationalist party [like the Religious Zionist Party] and doesn’t want the Likud,” he said. “If there won’t be a list that fights for those voters, they will go to centrist parties that give their mandates to the Left. It’s important to me that those votes go to the nationalist camp.”

All Chikli will say for now is that forming a new party “needs deep thought and can’t be done casually.” He said he is conducting “deep research” but that “the likelihood is high.”

Those who have met with Chikli about his political future and have given him advice include right-wing journalists Yaakov Bardugo, Boaz Bismuth and Irit Linur, and academic Gadi Taub, who have all praised Chikli. But that does not mean any of them will run together with him.

Another journalist who has repeatedly written favorably about Chikli is former Post columnist Caroline Glick, who was with him on the New Right list led by Bennett in the April 2019 election that did not cross the electoral threshold.

Chikli said he respects Glick’s “sharp understanding of the reality of who is for and against Israel” and said that on most issues of foreign policy, they see eye-to-eye. But he declined to discuss whether she could be a future political partner.

ON FOREIGN policy issues, Chikli is indeed outspoken and hawkish. He made a statement to Jacob Kornbluh, the political correspondent of The Forward, when he was elected that “the Biden administration is in some sense pro-Iran.” Chikli told the American Jewish newspaper that US President Joe Biden is “surrounded by pro-Iranian advisers and anti-Zionist members of Congress.”

Chikli said he stands by what he said and had not been misquoted. He criticized Biden’s handling of Iran, Afghanistan and the Palestinians.

“Biden himself seems very weak, maybe even irrelevant,” Chikli said. “I am less worried about Biden than the people around him, who are the same people who surrounded [former US president Barack] Obama and are the students of [anti-Israel Palestinian-American professor] Edward Said. They are affiliated with the progressive movement in the US, which is anti-Zionist and to a certain extent also antisemitic.”

Chikli said he was disturbed by reports of a gay pride rally in Chicago in which Jews hoisting a flag that was a combination of a pride flag and Israeli flag were told to leave. He said he is also concerned about what is happening with young Jews in America.

“I am very worried about what is happening on the campuses,” he said. “It is heartbreaking to see Jewish young people who concede their connections to their people and their heritage in order to connect to the latest fashionable movement that they are calling woke.”

Regarding the Middle East, Chikli warned that Hamas is now not only the leading force in Gaza but also in Judea and Samaria, where it has won elections on Palestinian campuses, and that it has frightening influence among Arab-Israelis. He blamed the Biden administration for helping Iran “raise its head” after the Islamic Republic was harmed by assassinations.

“This administration displays weakness on Iran, and it doesn’t support the actions of Israel and those working for changing who are in power in Iran,” he lamented.

The reactions in Washington and around the world to the recent terrorist attacks against Israelis, as opposed to the responses to the killing of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in Jenin, also bothered Chikli.

“I didn’t see any shock among the top people in the American administration about what happened in Beersheba, Bnei Brak and Elad, yet they were shocked by a journalist who got caught in the crossfire and was harmed unintentionally by either side,” he said. “I didn’t see proper condemnation for kids watching their dad get killed with an ax before their eyes.”

Chikli called this contrast “selective shock.”

“Their approach is pro-Palestinian,” he said. “They’re disconnected and don’t see the incitement on TV sanctifying murderers who kill and become heroes. Who are you liberal people who strengthen such a culture?”

Chikli said the people around Biden want to question Israel’s continued rule in its capital, as does the European Union.

“They don’t like that Israel is sovereign in Jerusalem generally and the Old City in particular,” he said. “I don’t understand how those who studied history and finished school deny the fact that the Temple Mount is where King David built an altar and King Solomon built a Holy Temple. Even the Koran says that. The attempt to paint Jews as foreigners in the Old City of Jerusalem is an insult to intelligence and to justice.”

CHIKLI IS in favor of a site for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall. He supports the Western Wall agreement that was initiated by Netanyahu and had been expected to be implemented by this government but never was.

“A family who want to pray at the Kotel needs to have a place to go that is not only for men or women, so the Ezrat Israel is an important solution,” he said. “It’s important to do it in coordination with the haredim and not behind their backs by people who say they want to put them in the trash [a reference to Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman]. I respect haredim, and haredim should respect secular people, too.”

Religious pluralism advocates had hopes that Chikli would advance their cause and have been disappointed. He lives on Kibbutz Hanaton, which was founded by the Masorti (Conservative) Movement.

Chikli is the son of Rabbi Dr. Eitan Chikli, who has been the director of the pluralist TALI school system since 1994. The elder Chikli has a doctorate from the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and rabbinic ordination and a master’s degree in Jewish studies from the Schechter Institute, which is affiliated with the Masorti (Conservative) Movement in Israel.

But the younger Chikli said his father never functioned as rabbi and does not see himself as a Conservative Jew, and he said he also does not see himself that way.

“I went to [Camp] Ramah and Noam [youth group], but I never defined myself as Conservative and part of that movement,” he said “I see myself as a Jew who keeps tradition. I have no problem with them [the Conservative movement]. I respect it and don’t worry about it or see it as negative.”

But Chikli said he sees it as a higher priority for himself to strengthen the Jewish identity among secular Israelis.

“It is destructive to say Jewish identity can only be religious,” he said. “The problem is not advancing pluralism. It is that most of the secular complete 12 years without knowing who Rabbi Akiva is and therefore can’t understand Jerusalem of Gold. They can’t understand Rachel the poetess because they don’t know about Rachel and Shiloh.”

Chikli differentiates between the Conservative movement, which he says is Zionist and can help reach out to undereducated secular Israelis, and the Reform, who he said have moved too far to the Left politically.

“In Israel, Reform and Conservative are seen as the same,” he said. “But the Reform in Israel took the wrong direction. The Reform movement has identified itself with the radical Left's false accusations that the settlers are violent, so they have earned the criticism against them, and I cannot identify with them. They are going back to their roots in Germany of anti-Zionism and anti-nationalism. It’s a tragedy that they are going there. They are anti-nationalist, and it’s important for them to wake up.” ■