Likud’s Amir Ohana becomes Israel’s first openly gay Knesset speaker

The Knesset on Thursday elected Likud MK Amir Ohana as its speaker, shortly before the confidence vote to inaugurate Israel’s 37th government. A former minister in past governments, Ohana is the Knesset’s first openly gay person to hold the role.

“I pledge to do my best to be worthy of the trust you put in me,” he told fellow Knesset members.

The outcome of the plenum vote was 63-5, with all coalition lawmakers voting in favor except for United Torah Judaism MK Yaakov Tesler, who was overseas.

Ohana’s selection was clinched Wednesday, when Likud faction members chose him in an internal vote to succeed Yariv Levin, who held the post in an interim role for two weeks.

Levin, a former Knesset speaker and a trusted ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, took up the post to oversee a three-part legislative blitz preceding the swearing-in, and vacated the role earlier Thursday to become justice minister.

Occupying one of the Knesset’s most strategic positions, the speaker wields considerable influence over the legislative agenda and pace, as well as running legislative sessions and maintaining decorum in the plenum.

Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu (L) is sworn in as prime minister as Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana (R) looks on, December 29, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Ohana has previously served as justice minister and public security minister, with his elevation to the former post in 2019 making him Israel’s first openly gay minister.

Considered a Netanyahu loyalist, Ohana was among the top vote-getters in internal Likud primaries ahead of the November 1 election, positioning him for a senior spot in the incoming coalition.

In his first remarks after being elected speaker, Ohana thanked Netanyahu for his “courage and trust” in advancing his candidacy, and said he and the Likud leader have “traveled a long way together” and “will, with God’s help, carry on further .”

Newly elected speaker of the Knesset Amir Ohana prepares to take up the post immediately after he was elected by fellow MKs, at the Knesset on December 29, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)

He thanked his parents – who were in the gallery – for accepting him “for who I am.” And he thanked his partner, Alon Haddad, “the second half of my life for almost 18 years,” who was in the gallery with the couple’s children, Ella and David, whom Ohana also mentioned.

Ohana vowed the incoming coalition would not infringe on LGBTG rights.

“This Knesset, under the leadership of this speaker, won’t hurt them or any other family, period,” he said in comments directed towards his family.

Alon Haddad, partner of new Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana, and their children listen to Ohana’s speech from the Knesset gallery, December 29, 2022 (Knesset channel screenshot)

Several of Likud’s far-right and ultra-Orthodox partners have expressed homophobic positions, including returning the now-banned conversion therapy, changing governmental forms to say “mother” and “father” instead of the gender-neutral “parent,” and running on the platform of a “normal family,” like the openly anti-LGBTQ Noam party.

Noam’s sole MK, incoming deputy minister Avi Maoz, looked away as Ohama made his opening speech, as did members of the United Torah Judaism party, Israel’s Channel 12 news reported.

United Torah Judaism MKs Yitzhak Goldknopf (left) and Meir Porush, both ministers in the new government, avert their gaze as Amir Ohana MK, who is gay, makes his first speech as Knesset speaker, December 29, 2022 (Screenshot from footage by Ari Kelman, BeHadrei Hadarim, broadcast on Channel 12; used in accordance with clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Netanyahu has repeatedly insisted that he will not allow any infringement on LGBTQ rights despite the signing of coalition agreements that state otherwise.

Ahead of the vote for speaker, Maoz asserted that recent reports about his party drawing up lists of gay media professionals and “leftist” Justice Ministry staff were no more than an attempt by the media to “defame, demonize and shame” him.

The Yedioth Ahronoth daily last week published the lists prepared as an internal document by his party in 2019, sparking widespread condemnation.

Maoz, who is due to serve as a deputy minister in charge of “Jewish identity” in the next government, claimed he has nothing against individual LGBTQ people and was only acting against “LGBTQ-ism as an agenda and as a political movement,” as well as against left-wing ideology rather than individual leftists.

That, he said, was why he would vote in favor of Ohana’s appointment as Knesset speaker.

Maoz said the media is “purposefully and maliciously trying to portray me as someone who is fighting against certain individuals. As if Stalinist cleansings are about to start, or at least McCarthyist persecution. Of course, reality is the complete opposite.”

The lists “are merely lecture materials gathered from news websites to show the influence in various public systems,” he added.

Noam party leader Avi Maoz speaks in the Knesset plenum on December 29, 2022, ahead of the swearing-in of the new government. (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)

Despite voting for Ohana as speaker, a member of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party expressed reservations about doing so in light of the Likud MK’s sexual orientation.

“We aren’t happy with the path he’s taking but we look at the person and not his tendencies,” MK Yoav Ben-Tzur, who is a minister in the Welfare Ministry in the new government, told the Ynet news site.

Ben-Tzur similarly denied there would be any changes to LGBTQ rights.

“We think we are a democratic country and there are disagreements. There won’t be extremism anywhere here,” he added.

Thursday’s election of a new Knesset speaker and swearing-in of the government followed weeks of negotiations between Netanyahu’s Likud and his far-right and Haredi coalition partners, which required a number of contentious pieces of legislation to be voted in before the agreements were signed.

Along with changing discrimination laws to allow goods and service providers to refuse service based on religious belief, the coalition agreements include a commitment to pass a controversial High Court override law designed to reduce judicial checks on executive and legislative power, and a declarative, if somewhat vague, commitment to annex the West Bank to Israel.

In addition, the far-right Otzma Yehudit party has secured an agreement to cut off the Border Police from the Israel Police and place the force under the direct control of the new national security minister, MK Itamar Ben Gvir.

The deals, if implemented, will also see far-reaching policy changes on religion and state, including enabling gender-segregated public events, restricting eligibility for Jewish immigration to Israel under the Law of Return, and increased funding for social welfare and religious education. Coalition deals are not legally binding and are not always fully implemented.

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