Whenever I see the Likud’s two most prominent MKs, David Bitan and David Amsalem, I cannot help thinking of Tweedledee and Tweedledum. Yes, I admit the resemblance might be somewhat superficial (and largely physical), and yet that is what pops into mind whenever I see the two – and in recent months it has been impossible not to see them.
Where Bitan and Amsalem differ from Tweedledee and Tweedledum is in that they only infrequently bear sour expressions on their faces, and while the former are constantly seeking a fight with each other but always back down at the last moment, the latter seem to be in perfect harmony, but are said to be in a bitter competition with each other behind the scenes over the title of "Netanyahu's chief defender."
Bitan and Amsalem are both overweight 59-year-olds of Moroccan origin, extremely jovial when in a good mood and aggressive to the point of being threatening when angry. Neither is an intellectual; though Bitan is a trained lawyer he jokingly admitted a while ago that he hasn’t read a book in 10 years. Both are folksy in the Mizrahi sense of the term, and both believe the Mizrahim got a raw deal in the past and deserve greater respect.
They are also both first-time MKs with a lot of political experience at the municipal level, and both have attained central political positions in their first Knesset term, something their predecessors never even dreamed of.
Soon after the elections to the 20th Knesset Bitan was appointed chairman of the prestigious Knesset House Committee and later promoted to coalition chairman when MK Tzachi Hanegbi joined the government, while Amsalem has been serving as chairman of the Knesset Interior Affairs Committee since the beginning of the current Knesset’s term.
Despite these similarities, though, the two men are far from being Siamese twins. Bitan, who runs the coalition with an iron fist and is not averse to using threats and bribes to secure coalition voting discipline, is nevertheless considered fair with regard to the opposition, and frequently supports its legislative proposals, even those of the Joint List, if he considers them worthy.
The chairwoman of Meretz, former MK Zehava Gal-on, once said of Bitan: “There are two Bitans. There is the Bitan who is Netanyahu’s human shield and a pioneer of incitement against the Left and the media, and there is the second Bitan, who has a soul, doesn’t have an evil cell in him, is funny, cute and attentive to the opposition.” Amsalem is a different kettle of fish. Having grown up in a home where hatred for Mapai was rife, he still holds a deep-seated aversion to Ashkenazim – especially those on the Left, whom he considers to be stingy and lacking in human warmth and comradery. He also openly speaks of his belief that Menachem Begin erred when he did not immediately replace the entire senior civil service back in 1977 when he assumed power, and has little patience with the few remaining liberals in the Likud.
Furthermore, he has much less patience than Bitan with the opposition, and in committee deliberations is inclined to be curt and impatient with its MKs, and to close deals with coalition members and experts in his office rather than in the committee. In addition, he does not hide the fact that he has an ax to grind with the Israel Police due to his having been detained on false charges many years ago. One example of this is his complaint that the chief of police earns double the prime minister’s salary, something he considers highly irregular.
The meteoric rise of both Bitan and Amsalem is a function of the fact that there is only one experienced Likud MK who is not a member of the Government or the Knesset Speaker (MK Avi Dichter - the remaining 14 Likud backbenchers are all new), and their total devotion to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, for whom they seem to be willing to "lie on the fence" unconditionally. (In other words, there are two reasons for their meteoric rise – the second one is Bitan's and Amsalem's devotion etc.)
These days the competition between the Bitan and Amsalem revolves around who can do more to advance Amsalem’s legislative initiative, the so-called “French Law,” which if passed will prevent police investigations and indictments of acting prime ministers unless the charges are especially serious (e.g. physical violence or rape), but will also limit a prime minister’s term to eight years. If passed, the law will not apply to Netanyahu’s current legal predicament, unless it is worded in such convoluted terms as to somehow overcome the obstacle of legislation not applying retroactively.
Both Bitan and Amsalem seem to be ignoring the serious reservations that the attorney general and state attorney – both Netanyahu appointments – have with regard to the bill. While Avichai Mandelblit stated that the bill constitutes “a serious blow to the rule of law,” Shai Nitzan stated that “enabling a serving president, or any other leader, to continue to serve while ignoring substantial criminal suspicions against him is what will harm the state, its honor and its status, and will also harm the honor and status of the public figure concerned.”
The two are also overtly impatient regarding the hesitance of at least three of the Likud’s coalition partners – Bayit Yehudi, Kulanu and Yisrael Beytenu – to support the bill in its current form. Bitan, for example, has prevented the bringing up in the ministerial committee on legislation any bills proposed by the coalition partners until such time as Amsalem’s bill is brought up for deliberation in committee and approved for presentation to the Knesset for preliminary debate. He has threatened the break-up of the coalition and the calling of early elections if they fail to cooperate.
What are their chances of success with the bill? At this stage it’s impossible to say. All the actors in this game are unpredictable.
With regard to the political future of the two Davids, I suspect that very much depends on how much longer Netanyahu survives politically. Since there is little doubt that the moment Netanyahu departs the political scene the Likud will suffer a grievous blow and probably be decimated, at least temporarily, it will depend on how high the two can position themselves in the Likud hierarchy before the fall, and how much support they will command after Netanyahu is gone.
In the last Likud primaries Bitan received 6,213 votes and Amsalem 2,423 (neither ran in the national list). They are certainly worth more today, and representative of a new Likud, which Begin and the Likud’s other founding fathers would have difficulty recognizing. Whether this is also the Likud of the future, only time will tell.