(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suffered a severe political blow on Wednesday when coalition chairman David Bitan, who had served as his main political arm for the past two years, told him that the criminal investigations surrounding his tenure as Rishon Lezion’s deputy mayor required him to quit his post.
Bitan organized two successful mass rallies for Netanyahu, ran the coalition with an iron fist, and defended Netanyahu in countless media interviews.
“The current situation makes it too difficult for me to function and I don’t want to harm the work and functionality of the coalition,” Bitan said. “I thank the prime minister for his trust and support. I will continue to serve respectfully as a Likud Knesset member and do all I can do to continue to serve the public.”
After speculation that Bitan’s jobs as coalition and Likud faction head could go to Knesset House Committee chairman Yoav Kisch, Netanyahu decided to give the post to Knesset Interior Committee chairman David Amsalem. In a statement about the appointment, Netanyahu said Amsalem’s first mission would be to pass the Nation-State Bill, which he called “among the most important bills in Israel’s history.”
Amsalem will also have to pass the 2019 state budget which could allow Netanyahu’s coalition to last until the scheduled date of the next election, November 5, 2019, if the prime minister is not forced out of office due to the ongoing corruption allegations against him.
Bitan’s resignation has nothing to do with Netanyahu’s criminal probe. But it will make it harder for Netanyahu to defend himself in coming months, because Amsalem lacks Bitan’s network of friends in the media and close ties with MKs from across the political spectrum.
Amsalem made a name for himself by initiating a series of bills aimed at protecting Netanyahu from his criminal investigations.
“My choice of Amsalem is intended to show there is payment for loyalty to me,” the prime minister was quoted as saying in closed conversations.
The Amsalem appointment is unlikely to win Netanyahu praise from the leaders of Diaspora Jewry. Amsalem spoke negatively against them during a crisis over the fate of egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall.
“With all due respect to the Americans and American Jews, they cannot be influencing what goes on here,” Amsalem said. “Let them get insulted if they want. There’s nothing wrong with that.”