Meet Shlomo Karhi, the outspoken Israeli minister visiting Saudi Arabia

MEE Staff

Middle East Eye  /  October 3, 2023

Communications minister, who is in Riyadh, has made controversial remarks on gay pride, the Palestinian flag on campuses and media regulation.

Shlomo Karhi is the second Israeli minister to visit Saudi Arabia in a matter of days, as talk of a normalization of ties between the two countries gathers pace.

The Israeli minister of communications travelled to Riyadh this week for the Universal Postal Union conference. 

“It is a great honor to represent the State of Israel in this historic visit to Saudi Arabia. It is especially meaningful to visit during the holiday of Sukkot, a time of renewal, gratitude and blessing in the Jewish faith,” Karhi told the Jewish News Syndicate on Tuesday. 

It came just days after tourism minister Haim Katz became the first Israeli minister to visit the Gulf kingdom in an official capacity. 

Shlomo, who has been a lawmaker for over four years, has caused a stir on several issues, including gay rights, media regulation and the banning of Palestinian flags. 

In 2019, when first running to be a parliamentarian as a candidate for the ruling Likud party, he made remarks condemning gay pride events.

“In my opinion holding Gay Pride parades is completely wrong,” Karhi told a local radio station. “Everyone has the freedom to choose (how to live their life). But I don’t think it’s appropriate to publicly display this behaviour.”

Karhi’s own aunt, who has two gay sons, said she was “not surprised by her nephew’s remarks” and would continue “fighting against people who speak and think… in this way.”

In December, the same month that he was appointed communications minister in the new far-right coalition government, Shlomo proposed a bill that would ban the Palestinian flag inside the campuses of universities and colleges in Israel. 

Karhi proposed that any student waving a Palestinian flag on campus should face a suspension of six months. And if their offence was repeated, they would face expulsion from the academic institution and their right to get a degree would be revoked.

“The phenomenon in which troublemakers in Israel wave the [Palestine Liberation Organization] flag, symbolizing the desire to destroy our Jewish and democratic state, in the name of academic freedom, should disappear from the world,” he said at the time, referring to the Palestinian flag as the PLO flag.

“We will raise the Israeli flag to the top of the mast and restore national pride,” he added.

Army reservists will ‘go to hell’

In March, he made headlines again when he told army reservists they would “go to hell” for refusing military service in protest against the government’s controversial judicial reforms

Citing a biblical story, he said: “There are times when one must stand firm against the hegemony and the rulers … To the impudent [military reservist] refusers, I will tell you what Mordechai told Esther: ‘Profit and salvation will arise for the Jews from another place, and your father’s house will be destroyed.’ The people of Israel will manage without you and you will go to hell.”

The remarks were widely condemned, including by fellow Likud ministers in the government.

Karhi has supported the shutting down of the news divisions of the Kan public broadcaster, as well as Israel’s Army Radio, which is run by the country’s military. 

“In my view, there is no place in this day and age for a public broadcaster when there is a wide range of channels,” he said at a digital journalism conference in January. 

“I see the media as too biased toward the left, and maybe I’m wrong. But let’s let the public decide,” he said.

It wouldn’t be the only time he would threaten the media: weeks later he said that the government may pull funding for advertisement in Haaretz, over its decision to terminate the contract of columnist Gadi Taub.

Taub’s termination was reportedly due to his support for the Israeli government’s judicial reforms and his appointment to an academic institution linked to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. 

“Thank you Haaretz for the tailwind to my position that a comprehensive reform is needed in the media market,” Karhi said on X, formerly known as Twitter. “We’ll act to stop government funding by advertisements in this Bolshevik abomination.”

In May he threatened action against Channel Makan 33, Israel’s public Arabic language channel. 

He accused the channel, part of the Kan News network, of sounding like its “broadcasts are funded by the Palestinian Authority” and violating Israeli law because it didn’t “reflect Israel’s existence as a Jewish democratic state.”