'We Need to Foment Revolutions. Also by Force,' Says Israeli Lawmaker David Amsalem

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David Amsalem at a Knesset committee
David Amsalem at a Knesset committee.Credit: Emil Salman
Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht

MK David Amsalem, 57, is the most authentic manifestation of the current mood in Likud: caustic, angry, aiming to upend the very nature of Israeli society. The chairman of the Knesset Interior and Environment Committee, Amsalem is a widower and father of two, and lives in the West Bank settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim. “The Sephardim in Israel need to get the respect they deserve,” he tells me, during an interview in his hometown. “To be in the places they deserve, in the judiciary, in culture, in academia, in managing the State of Israel. I think we need to foment tremendous revolutions. Also by force.”

What do you mean, “by force”?

“In budgets, in orientation. It won’t happen by itself and it’s not happening at the right pace, because there are people who don’t want it to happen at the right pace. Ashkenazi culture rules the roost here. The values are Ashkenazi in the judiciary, too.”

What are “Ashkenazi values”?

“In my home, hospitality is very important. Friendship is a supreme value. I hate misers. Giving things, warmth, love, small gifts – that’s imprinted within me. It staggers me if I see two friends sitting and ordering a Coke, and each of them paying his 4 shekels [$1.15]. I think that if we had judges with a Mizrahi tradition, they wouldn’t understand what all the fuss is about here.”

The suspicions against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu aren’t that he got a free meal, but that he received gifts worth hundreds of thousands of shekels.

“Over a period of 15 years, I’ve treated my friends to the tune of hundreds of thousands of shekels. I worked it out: buying cookies cost me hundreds of thousands of shekels alone. I think corruption is contemptible, but what’s happening here is [also] very serious. I heard [former District Court] Judge David Rozen [today, commissioner for public complaints in the State Prosecutor’s Office] say on the radio that receiving gifts is prohibited, period. The very fact that he’s intervening – he’s a civil servant. You know that the case is still under investigation, so why are you opening your mouth? Who is he actually talking to? Not to me. He’s talking to [Attorney General Avichai] Mendelblit, to the police, to the state prosecution. That’s obstruction of an investigation par excellence. The Ashkenazim and leftists are always allowed to break the law.”

'The Ashkenazim and leftists are always allowed to break the law... It’s a war over culture'

- David Amsalem

But you yourself are intervening. As chairman of the Knesset Interior Committee, you called the police a “criminal organization” after Ari Harow signed an agreement to turn state’s evidence.

“But I’m a politician. My task is parliamentary control over the systems I’m in charge of, and as a public figure I am obliged to express myself on issues of public importance. Do you think it’s right for a public official [Rozen] to talk about the prime minister? Who is he, anyway? It’s a war over culture. A ‘Rozen’ like that probably never invited anyone for a Coke, never invited anyone to have a cigarette.”

In response to Amsalem’s comments, a spokesperson for the Justice Ministry said: “The honorable emeritus judge David Rozen was asked during a panel discussion organized by the Israel Bar Association about the issue of civil servants receiving gifts, and emphasized that he was not referring to the law, which is perfectly clear, or to any particular case, but was expressing his personal opinion – namely, that a civil servant should not accept gifts. Any attempt to attribute some other intention to his remarks is a distortion of reality and wrenches what he said from its context.”

Daviv Amsalem.Credit: Ilya Melinkov

Old wounds

David Amsalem was elected to the Knesset for the first time in 2015, from 21st place on Likud’s slate, his rank after being selected by 2,423 votes as the party’s candidate for the Jerusalem district. He was born in August 1960, in a transit camp in the city’s Kiryat Hayovel neighborhood, after the family immigrated from Morocco. His was a home, he says, that hated Mapai (the left-wing forerunner of Labor). “My father was a member of the [local] Likud branch, and found it hard to get a job because he was a Likudnik. Finally, he found work in a poultry factory at [Kibbutz] Sha’ar Hanegev,” in southern Israel. “Because of the distance, he rented an apartment in Sderot with a few friends – he only came home on weekends. My father loathed the Mapainiks with a passion; he felt that they had dishonored us. My parents saw Mapainiks as people who made some of the Mizrahi children who came here lose their religion. That’s what bothered them the most.”

Likud has been in power for 40 years, yet you still don’t have a Mizrahi leader. Is Mapai to blame for that, too?

'We want everyone to be judged according to their ability, irrespective of sex, religion or race. That’s what the left is always preaching – but then it does the exact opposite. The leftists are the biggest racists'

- David Amsalem

“I think the racist story has nothing to do with who’s in power. It’s a question of the elitist stratum in Israel. We want to arrive at a situation in which everyone is judged according to his ability, irrespective of sex, religion or race. That’s what the left is always preaching – but then it does the exact opposite. The leftists are the biggest racists.”

Police corruption

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks on before praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, February 28, 2015.Credit: Marc Sellem, AP

Amsalem has co-sponsored a number of social-justice bills, including one that would increase parking for the disabled, one to increase accessibility to summer camps for children, VAT-exemption for lifesaving drugs that are not part of the “health basket” covered by the country’s health-maintenance organizations (an initiative that followed his wife’s death from an illness, he notes).

He has also been active in the struggle against the Reform Judaism movement and the Western Wall agreement, which was intended to create an egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel, as well as the effort to bring remaining members of the Falashmura community in Ethiopia to Israel – a project in which he clashed aggressively with the prime minister. But what’s currently uppermost in Amsalem’s mind is his campaign against the police.

In contrast to his colleagues, for Amsalem, the defense of Netanyahu is bound up with a very personal and highly charged personal outlook. In March 2003, Amsalem was arrested as part of the so-called “Jerusalem gang” in Likud – which also included Yitzhak Kaufman and Yoram Karshi – on various suspicions related to the party’s 2002 primary. And while serving as director of the city beautification division in the Jerusalem Municipality, Amsalem was questioned under caution in the Holyland housing project affair, because of his close relations with the local deal-maker Meir Rabin, who was ultimately convicted of money laundering and bribery. Amsalem to date has not be indicted or tried for any crime.

In addition to assailing the police on social media, Amsalem has promoted various bills intended to limit the powers of the police.

“I’m not some clean slate who came to the Knesset at the age of 15 and doesn’t know who the police are,” he says. “I was arrested at home, when I had a wife and two small children, for an incident I knew nothing about,” he goes on, referring to the 2003 affair. And no one talked to me [about it] afterward, either. Bro, you wreck my life, and nothing happens? Since then, I’ve had questions about the behavior of that body, and its motivations.

“Now I’m asking the police, ‘Aren’t you ashamed? You’re investigating the prime minister about cigars?’ The former police commissioner, Yohanan Danino, spent 800,000 shekels on a [retirement] party. That’s theft from an employer, fraudulent behavior,” Amsalem alleges. “Imagine if a party costing 40,000 shekels were thrown for Netanyahu. The country would be shocked. The current police commissioner has taken on a [public-relations] consultant at 3.2 million shekels [over four years]. He has 160 spokespersons. That’s criminal, as far as I’m concerned.”

Maybe you were offended because that consultant, Lior Chorev, wrote unflattering things about you on Facebook?

'Give me two investigators, I’ll go to police headquarters and rattle the foundations of the State of Israel'

- David Amsalem

“That has nothing to do with it. I asked the commissioner where he got the authorization to employ a consultant for 800,000 times four. The ministry’s auditor, he tells me. I look and see someone with ranks. This is your auditor? How can that be? He’s his subordinate. I submitted a bill under which the auditor would not be subordinate to him. And you know what happened? By everyone from Mendelblit to the whole world, I was attacked for undermining the rule of law. These are the ‘caretakers’ – you take care of Mendelblit and he takes care of you.

“You know, no one will dare check them,” Amsalem continues. “And they are doing very serious things. I’m sure of it. Give me two investigators, I’ll go to police headquarters and rattle the foundations of the State of Israel. How can it be that the police have a budget of 14 billion shekels, and the country isn’t safe.

“I held a meeting about domestic burglaries in southern communities. I held seven meetings about the Arab population. People are being murdered there like flies, and there’s no money [to investigate]. I have no complaints about the majority of the police. I’m talking about the top levels of the police – the police commissioner, the head of the investigations unit, and four or five other guys, who are basically the spirit of the police. They set up a whole unit, hundreds of investigators, with jobs and vehicles and money and ranks, each of them with a fine salary. How can we justify that? And they are supposed to be investigating corruption.”

Is there no corruption?

'The spirit [in the State Prosecutor’s Office] is almost extreme left. They are arrogant, they are elitist, they are braggarts.'

- David Amsalem

“Since 1977, seemingly since the right wing has been in power, all the law enforcement agencies – and especially the State Prosecutor’s Office – have been convincing the public that public corruption exists. And I tell you, there is no corruption in public government. It’s their way of taking power from elected officials and ruling in practice.”

Amsalem terms the State Prosecutor’s Office the “brain” that runs the police. “Watch who works there, who navigates them,” he says. “The spirit is almost extreme left. They are arrogant, they are elitist, they are braggarts.”

On what basis are you calling them extreme leftists?

“Check it out in practical terms. It’s built in, they’re educated according to that doctrine. If a government falls because of the story about [Netanyahu and] the gifts, nothing will help Mendelblit, [State Prosecutor] Shai Nitzan, the Supreme Court president – the right-wing public will not accept it. They will understand that something bad is happening here.”

These are very serious accusations – you’re the chairman of the Knesset Interior Committee.

“It’s my job as the committee’s chairman to review those bodies. A large proportion of MKs think exactly as I do, but are afraid to say so.”

A police spokesperson stated in response to Amsalem’s allegations: “We can only regret statements that bear absolutely no connection to reality. It is painful and outrageous to hear that someone thinks the police have any another goal other than to serve the citizens devotedly. No unfounded and mistaken allegation about the police budget and the number of its spokespersons will alter the situation in which the determined activity of the police against terrorism and crime in Israel is forging personal security for the country’s citizens daily.

“We also regret that, time and again, exaggerated numbers are floated about the costs of the media consultancy, whereas the person who’s putting them forward definitely received the exact figures, which are very far from those being alleged. The status of the police auditor is identical to the status of every [similarly placed] auditor in a government ministry.”

‘Friend of my friends’

Ehud Olmert at the Supreme Court, during a hearing on the appeal in the Holyland corruption case, Dec. 29, 2015.Credit: Gil Yohanan

Some within Likud see Amsalem as a guy who would do anything for his friends. “I am a friend of my friends. They are good people – I am their friend. By the way,” he adds, “even if they stumble, I am their friend.”

One of those friends is former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who was mayor of Jerusalem when Amsalem was promoted to a senior post at city hall. “What was done to Ehud would never happen in a properly run country,” Amsalem claims. “You don’t topple a prime minister over 60,000 shekels. Even though he still denies receiving it.”

Do you think you can be objective, given that he promoted you?

“I knew Olmert before I was a city employee. He didn’t appoint me, I took part in a tender [for the job]. It was a disaster for us when he left Likud for Kadima. Ideologically, Ehud overstepped the bounds. But at the personal level, he’s an amazing person, a mensch.”

Former Education Minister Limor Livnat said that in the Likud primary of 2002, you and your colleagues threatened that if she didn’t appoint cronies of yours to jobs, you would hurt her in the primaries.

MK Yael German.Credit: Michal Fattal

'Brutal and rude. That includes insulting and silencing anyone he doesn’t want to hear'

- Opposition lawmakers on Amsalem

“Nonsense. Livnat wanted our support. I didn’t want to back her because she had fired someone, the father of a friend of mine, who had worked in the Education Ministry for 30 years. I told her, ‘He’s worked under six education ministers, he’s not a political person – why are you firing him?’ At first she said he wouldn’t be fired but suddenly, a month later, she says to me, ‘Listen, Dudi, we’ll give your people whatever position you want, but I have to fire him.’ I was offended on his behalf. I said, ‘Look at that insolent woman, the way she does everything backward.’ By the way, there was another story involving a person in Jerusalem, the director of the community centers in the city. A job became available at the national level and we asked [Livnat] to appoint him, but she wouldn’t.”

Do you not understand the problem? You “asked her to appoint him” – what is that?

“Excuse me, but you don’t come to a senior position by way of the employment bureau. You come, you recommend so-and-so, that’s how it works. The same for chief of staff and defense minister. The leftists are allowed, but we’re just plain folks. Amsalem recommends? Whoever heard of such a thing? Your question is also elitist.”

What’s elitist about it? I’m saying should be treated equally.

“But that’s not the case. We are in politics to wield influence. We didn’t come from the United Nations. Part of that influence relates to appointments. We don’t have to be saintlier than the Mapainik Ashkenazim, who didn’t have any sort of appointments committee. Today, there’s a state committee that examines qualifications and, obviously, you don’t have to appoint someone with three years of education just because he’s a Likud activist. But today, precisely because you are from Likud, you can’t be appointed – and that’s something I can’t accept.”

‘Brutal and rude’

The committee Amsalem heads is one of the most important in the Knesset. One of its areas of activity is local government, with its vast political leverage. Last January, he pushed through a decision that retroactively validated noncontributory pensions for seven deputy mayors, which they had been receiving illegally since 1999. Committee member MK Yael German (Yesh Atid) objected and petitioned the High Court of Justice over the decision. In her view, the committee’s decision to approve the pension retroactively, “against the regulations,” was “unreasonable and tainted by corruption, and needed to be overturned.”

Amsalem does not agree.

How do you explain the committee decision?

“In January 1999, a month after the local elections, the Knesset Finance Committee enacted a law concerning pensions for mayors. The Interior Committee forgot to say that the law was meant to have come into effect from November 1998. The Interior Ministry made a printing error, which affected a few people. I don’t see what the problem is.”

Some in Likud have high praise for Amsalem’s management of the committee, but some of its other members are less complimentary. “‘Dudi’ Amsalem runs the committee disrespectfully to MKs,” says MK Tamar Zandberg (Meretz). “It happens in almost every meeting. He stops the session and goes to a room where he concludes a few things supposedly by consultation, which can take between five minutes and an hour, while everyone else, including MKs, sits and waits and doesn’t know what’s going on. Finally, he comes back and says, ‘I’ve settled things. Here’s how it will be: A, B, C.’ That’s it. There’s no right to speak, no discussion.”

MK German, too, calls Amsalem’s conduct in the committee meetings “brutal and rude. That includes insulting and silencing anyone he doesn’t want to hear.”

“Utter nonsense,” Amsalem says in response. “There’s no one I don’t let speak, but there are people who think they’re allowed to say whatever they want, and for as long as they want. That’s not for me. There’s order.”

With regard to the professional running of the committee, he says, “I hold a hearing, and I understand that nothing much can come from that because it’s a professional discussion that goes on for hours. So I hold a professional discussion in my room. I invite the relevant officials.”

Why not everyone?

“Impossible. These are hearings that last hours. I want to understand the depth of the issue and I convene them [the professionals], and then I bring it to the committee, formalize it and let the officials present the professional element. They say, ‘We sat, we decided, terrific.’ In most of the Knesset committees, there’s a hearing and that’s it. Nothing happens. I don’t hold a hearing for the sake of holding a discussion.”

One MK, not from your committee, told me he’s afraid of you. Are you possibly overdoing the aggressiveness thing?

“I don’t know what ‘aggressiveness’ means. I hate time-wasting and idlers. If there are people who [try to] interfere with my work, I don’t let them.”

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