Which Direction Does the Strongest Man in Israeli Politics Want to Take the Country?

Coalition whip David Bitan is Netanyahu's 'human shield' – but he's also the darling of the opposition. 'I am very democratic,' he says

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Coalition whip David Bitan.
Coalition whip David Bitan.Credit: Ilya Melnikov
Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht

Governing coalition chief David Bitan, 57, is married with two children and lives in Rishon Letzion. He is currently the most powerful figure in the Likud party, and in effect in Israeli politics, due to his close relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who does not habitually meet with his cabinet ministers, let alone his party’s Knesset members. A former deputy mayor of Rishon Letzion – in regard to whom various media investigations have raised troubling questions regarding his past debts to the so-called gray market and how these debts were repaid, dating to the time when he served as chairman of the city’s soccer team – has rocketed to political stardom, all during his first term in the Knesset.

Bitan has been a member of Likud for some 40 years. He entered the 20th Knesset as number 16 on the party slate, having been elected as its delegate from the Coastal Plain (Shfela) region with 6,213 votes, with no one running against him in the district. He had been part of the Ariel Sharon camp before the late prime minister split from Likud to form the Kadima party, and confesses that over a decade ago, he had a quarrel with Netanyahu, during one of the latter’s campaigns for the Likud leadership, when Bitan gave party activists in his Rishon Letzion branch free rein to vote as they saw fit.

The alliance between the two men was formed during the 2015 electoral campaign. A year later, Netanyahu appointed Bitan to the post of party whip after being impressed by his performance as chairman of the Knesset House Committee, and having received numerous favorable recommendations from the field.

Bitan has been one of Netanyahu’s most strident defenders with regard to the ongoing criminal investigations against the premier. “There are two reasons for Knesset seats to move from right to left,” he says, explaining his position. “The first being religion and state, and the second being corruption. Back in the Yitzhak Shamir period, we lost the [1992] election in the wake of the slogan, ‘You’re corrupt, we’re fed up.’ The left and the media understand this and are therefore attempting to create an atmosphere of corruption, without any real connection to investigations or their outcomes. When there is a battle over public opinion, our role is to stand in the breach and to wage the fight. Which is why I have issues with some of the cabinet ministers.”

Bitan talks to the press at an event in support of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, August 10, 2017.Credit: Ilan Assayag

Who is it that disappoints you?

“If I were to mention names, they would be affected negatively in a big way in the next primary, and I don’t want to do that to anyone.”

But if someone thinks Netanyahu’s behavior is unworthy?

“Then he ought to resign. A minister cannot say he is critical of the prime minister and then remain in the cabinet of the man he’s criticizing. If I thought Netanyahu wasn’t OK, I wouldn’t stay for a single minute.”

It’s on your watch that Likud has become a political party of Netanyahu lackeys. It’s become a dictatorship.

“There’s no such thing as a party of lackeys. There is a political movement and there is a party leader. So what do you want? You want us to go against him?”

In light of Netanyahu’s history with his close associates, what will you do once he no longer has a use for you?

“That isn’t going to happen. I’m not going to have any fight with Netanyahu, because he truly believes in me. In the past, there were people who wanted to replace him and he, quite naturally, got angry with them. I am not interested in replacing him, and I’m not stealing anyone else’s show, either.”

Meantime, the main beneficiary of your uncompromising defense of Netanyahu is you. You are the show.

“I think that is the job of a Knesset member or a cabinet minister, certainly of a coalition whip. True, it turned out to have brought me a lot of sympathy in Likud, too. But that wasn’t the plan, you understand?”

Darling of the opposition

Coalition whip David Bitan.Credit: Ilya Melnikov

Bitan runs the government from a coffee shop-bakery in a gas station at the entrance to Rishon Letzion. This is also where our conversation took place, complete with incessant interruptions by passersby who wanted to speak or have their picture taken with him.

“We aren’t surprised that he has moved ahead – what surprises me is his openness to the media,” says Asaf Daboul, a Rishon Letzion city councilman who has known Bitan for over 25 years. “When he was here, he wouldn’t give a single interview. He would feud with all of the reporters, took insult from any and every thing that was said. In that regard, he has opened up like a beautiful flower. But he’s also capable of fabricating all sorts of things. You never know if he is just messing with you or being serious. It was I who came up with the line about him, ‘Truth is also an option. Every so often, exercise it.’”

One surprising piece of information – aside from the fact he doesn’t have a driver’s license – is that Bitan happens to be one of the opposition’s favorite lawmakers. “Yes, he is one of Netanyahu’s automatic defenders, but there is a wide gap between his image on the left and who he really is,” says Meretz lawmaker Tamar Zandberg. “As the coalition whip, if I had to compare him to his predecessors, he is fair and decent. He will help to advance a legislative bill initiated from the opposition if he believes in it. Unlike a lot of people in politics, he says what he’s thinking directly to your face and won’t stick a knife in your back.”

“There are two Bitans,” says her colleague, Meretz Chairwoman Zehava Galon. “One is the Bitan who serves as Netanyahu’s human shield and is at the forefront of incitement against the left and the media; and there’s the other Bitan, the one who has a soul and who really is not a bad person. He is funny and cute and considerate of the opposition. I once said that in front of an audience of my supporters and they nearly killed me.”

"Leftists love you," I tell Bitan.

“Very much so,” he agrees. “I am very democratic, I weigh proposals from the opposition in a businesslike manner. If I promise something, I always make good on it. But when there is a crisis, I will not pass on [a legislative proposal]. For instance, once I decided I would not pass on a single legislative bill by the opposition for a month, because they had violated the voting offset arrangement.”

You have said you would prefer that the Arabs not participate in voting [in elections], but under the radar you cooperate with MKs from the Joint List. Recently, for instance, you intervened in favor of hooking up homes in Ramle to the electrical grid.

“Wherever it is possible to help, I help. Even the Joint List has had a few bills of which you can speak positively, and therefore I weigh them favorably.”

Are you ashamed of it? Are you afraid to be portrayed as a collaborator of Ahmad Tibi’s?

“No, not in the least. It isn’t collaboration. For example, the Arabs don’t care about religious legislation, right? Sometimes there are cracks in the coalition, and if Yisrael Beiteinu is opposed, the Arab MKs can come out and vote and I can get laws passed.”

And what do you give them in return?

“I am not going to reveal all the secrets to you.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (center), flanked by Yuval Steinitz (left) and David Bitan, at a Likud faction meeting, May 2017.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Replacing the officials

To Bitan’s credit, one could say that, as opposed to other Likud ministers and MKs, he does not cultivate a public persona as an ideological purist, which is to say by pandering to the settler voting public.

You blocked the bill to annex the settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim, earlier this year.

“That’s true. I pulled the bill off the legislative agenda because all the Likud ministers were afraid of the party’s right-wing members. Look, I am in favor of annexing Ma’aleh Adumim, but the timing was problematic. At the time, the prime minister was meeting with [U.S. President] Donald Trump’s envoy. At that precise moment, if annexation had been approved, it would have caused a serious problem and the settlement enterprise would have been negatively affected.”

Is it true you said to your people, ‘Guys, we are not Habayit Hayehudi, we are not [ultra-nationalist, Orthodox MK Bezalel] Smotrich’?

“Correct. There’s a big difference between us and Habayit Hayehudi. We see eye to eye on the issue of the settlements, OK? I am pro-settlement, and we have a lot of things in common. But on the subject of two states Habayit Hayehudi says one state and would have us annex and give citizenship to just 80,000 Arabs who live around settlements. But you can’t do only half the job. They aren’t going to let you annex only this part without completing the entire matter at hand, and that means changing the face of the country, because the Arabs [that is, the newly enfranchised Palestinians] will be voting for the Knesset.”

One Likud MK, Miki Zohar, hit on a solution for it: A single state in which the Palestinians would not vote for the Knesset.

“You can’t go and say things that are so unserious. If there is a single state, then in another 10 years Netanyahu will be running against Abu Mazen [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas] in the prime ministerial campaign.”

You fight with all your might against the “new Likudniks,” which is an ideologically based voter base that represents a certain side of Likud. But you have no problem with a voter base such as that of Israel Aerospace Industries.

“There is a difference between a voter base of people with a special interest and a voter base based on a different ideological agenda. A special-interest voter base is less harmful.”

Perhaps the problem with the ideological group is that they don’t want people like you in the party?

“I know they are not my voters, nor did I ask them to be. I’m not willing to get my votes from Meretz. The moment they started to say, ‘This is our objective – to topple Netanyahu, to dismantle Likud,’ I went into action. And it isn’t over yet. There will be yet more actions taken against them.”

How do you respond to [moderates like] Dan Meridor and Benny Begin, who say their Likud no longer exists?

“Dan Meridor isn’t a Likudnik.”

Benny Begin isn’t a Likudnik?

“Benny Begin is a Likudnik, but he has an inaccurate view of reality. He thinks we have to be democrats even if it destroys the State of Israel. Democracy has a right to defend itself, which is something he does not understand.”

Would Jabotinsky and Menachem Begin have dared to launch attacks like yours against the judicial system?

“Begin was strong when it came to the people, but when it came to the authorities of the governing system, he made mistakes. Following the political upheaval of 1977 [when Likud first came to power], there was an opportunity to replace all of the senior members of the civil service, and he did not do it. The man made a very big mistake, for which we are still paying.”

In other words, according to you, when a government is replaced, all of the professional government officials should be banished?

“I think we should act as they do in the United States. A new administration comes in and there are 4,000 to 5,000 officials – ambassadors, directors general and deputy directors general of government ministries, division heads – that they can replace.”

Educated, but down to earth

Based on reactions he gets from audiences at Likud events, it would seem Bitan is headed toward a much higher rank on the party electoral slate. And yet occasionally, when the spotlights are turned off and the circle around him scatters, one can hear other voices as well. “Bitan will not be the future of Likud,” says a member of the party’s central committee who has been active for decades. “He behaves in a power-hungry manner, which people like but only up to a certain point. In the final analysis, Likudniks want someone who will bring them electoral victory. When you are not considered legitimate by the outside world, you cannot bring electoral victory.”

You are much less a “man of the people” than you present yourself to be.

“I am a man of the people.”

But you are also an educated man.

“Correct, I received a degree in law from Tel Aviv University in 1987. It was very tough to get in, they accepted only 120 people.”

What I meant to say was that you show off mainly the man-of-the-people side, because that is what serves you best.

“No, that is me. Being an educated person doesn’t mean you can’t be a man of the people.”

Aren’t you afraid that this populist public conduct will end up being your downfall?

“No. I think this is the proper public image, primarily in the eyes of Likud voters.”

By the end of this term you will be a cabinet minister.


Which portfolio would you want? What interests you?

“I am interested in the Interior Ministry. I grew up in local governments, so I can begin contributing from the word go. But it isn’t relevant, because that is a position reserved in the coalition for the Shas party. When the time comes and when there is an opportunity, then we’ll talk with the prime minister and we’ll see.”

There are people who worked with you at the Rishon Letzion municipality who say their stomachs turn when they hear about the idea of Bitan as minister.

“There are political people – incidentally, it’s always the same people – who spread rumors about me. I don’t have any connection with them now, but they are afraid that I might return to Rishon.”

And are you afraid the dream might end and you will return to Rishon?

“No. I am already old enough to understand that every political position is temporary.”

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