Evita, the premier gay bar of Tel Aviv, was festooned with balloons and lights, the patrons waiting impatiently for their guest of honor. When she arrived, they excitedly rose from their seats with loud cheers and applause. Tzipi Livni, however unpopular a politician that she is made out to be by the media, is no stranger to the appreciation granted to her by Tel Aviv’s LGBT community. She has been a friend and supporter for quite some time; despite belief to the contrary Meretz does not have a monopoly on gay rights. But, now it seems, everyone wants to get in on the action: Michael Oren, speaking to a group of Anglos a few weeks ago, conveniently dropped into his discussion about peace and security, that the Kulanu party undoubtedly supported gay marriage-to the great delight of the audience. Members of Yesh Atid like Yael German, a former Meretz member, have authored legislation allowing for same-sex surrogacy. Even the Likud, by now tainted as a far-right party by the inclusion of its settler friendly members is not immune. No less than Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon came out in support of marriage equality.
The only conspicuous absence, of course, is Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home (I refrain from including the haredim, as many liberal Israelis have written them off as a lost cause). As I recently reported, activists have singled him and his party out as a particularly nasty bunch of homophobes, interrupting party speaking events wherever and whenever they’ve been able. That’s a real shame for Bennett, as he misses out on an ever-growing demographic of voters, and leaves himself wide open to attacks from all sides of the spectrum.
Livni, a politician in the truest sense of the word is naturally the type of person to take full advantage of Bennett’s rhetoric. I say this with the least amount of cynicism: she is, of course, a powerful politician in a political party fighting tooth and nail to wrest power away from the right. This late into the game, everything must be used to one’s advantage. After regaling audience members with stories of an appearance at a gay dance club weeks before, Livni spent much of her time ganging up on Bennett, who has become something of a bête noir to the gay community. The audience was treated to a slew of ugly homophobic quotes, nearly all made by Bennett’s cohorts; when asked to sum up homophobia in one word, she replied with three: “Jewish Home, basically?” She then warned that a Bibi victory would inevitably lead to a narrow, right-wing government which would roll back all the progress made in the arena of gay rights. A bit of scaremongering and pandering, perhaps, but if every other party is allowed to use such tactics, Livni should not be singled out for such offenses.
It also seems that someone in the Zionist Union has been paying attention to the Meretz campaign’s attacks on it, and has decided to respond with a message of its own. Instead of Zahava Gal-On’s insistence on refraining from voting for larger parties lest they end up sitting with Bibi, Livni retorted that the only way to defeat the right was to give the Zionist Union a large enough mandate to oust him from power. With a newly enthroned center-left, a new golden age of pro-gay legislation would naturally begin. No mention, of course, of the numerous instances in which both Livni and Labor gladly sat with the Likud, inadvertently acting as a fig leaf for its awful policies. Fortunately for Livni, no hecklers in the audience emerged to call her out on this hypocrisy.
This not-so-hidden secret didn’t stop her, however, from twisting the same rhetoric used against her by Meretz and directing it against Yair Lapid. If anyone needs reminding, Lapid took his upset of 19 mandates in the 2013 elections and formed a de facto union with “brother” Bennett. But Lapid’s terrible decision, while wrenching and highly aggravating, can at least be understood as the missteps of a political novice. Livni and Herzog, having been in the game for much longer, have no such excuses.
In her closing remarks to the audience, Livni did away with the pleasantries and spoke directly to the point: “You, as a community and a bloc of voters have real power, and you should use that power to influence”. If certain parties-that-should-not-be-named wanted to espouse bigoted rhetoric in order to win votes, then the LGBT community should punish them at the polls.
Livni’s remarks show that the LGBT community has become a force to be reckoned with, to be courted by politicians and parties of all stripes. Instead of ignoring homophobic remarks as in the past, politicians exploit said remarks to their full advantage. Homophobia, as many audience members pointed out, is still prevalent in Israeli society, in particular in the periphery. But Israeli society is steadily moving in a direction towards further acceptance, and anti-gay sentiment has its own price tag attached to it.
As Livni left the stage, she was mobbed by adoring fans, posing for selfie after selfie. Having another engagement to rush off to, I tried in vain to get out the door as quickly as I could, only to be trapped in a bottleneck of people eager to chat with her. Livni, who is not known for being the warmest of politicians, was nonetheless comfortable in such an environment, and clearly relished the attention. Political calculations notwithstanding, it was clearly within her right to reap the benefits (and adoration) from the genuine warmth she has shown the community in years past. Meretz campaigners have already expressed their irritation at the Zionist Union taking away votes from them to strengthen the center. Perhaps they should also acknowledge that when it comes to winning the gay vote, they have some stiff competition.
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