Analysis: When Netanyahu's mouthpiece has a foot in it

If you’re wondering who Bitan is, where he came from and why is he making so many headlines, that’s understandable.

November 7, 2016 04:23
4 minute read.
DAVID BITAN seen at the Knesset last year

DAVID BITAN seen at the Knesset last year. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

It’s David Bitan’s country; we’re just living in it.

At least that’s how it seems if you’ve been reading the political news lately. The coalition chairman and Likud MK seems to have come out of nowhere and somehow is everywhere, with a finger in every pie and something to say about everything.

On Saturday night, Bitan outdid himself, causing two maelstroms at once. First, he said that former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination was “not a political murder,” and then he announced that he is tracking the Facebook posts of journalists.

Bitan backtracked somewhat on both – Rabin’s murder had political motivations, but didn’t come from a political party, he said, and he’s not actively following journalists, he was sent certain Facebook posts, which are public anyway – but he was still at the eye of both storms.

If you’re wondering who Bitan is, where he came from and why is he making so many headlines, that’s understandable.

Bitan is a freshman MK, and three of his five months as coalition chairman were spent with the Knesset in recess, but he snapped back into action when the legislature’s winter session began last week.

Bitan was born in Morocco in 1960, made aliya at age 5, served in the IDF as a combat medic, and is a lawyer with a degree from Tel Aviv University.

A longtime Likud activist, he represented the party on the Rishon Lezion City Council from 1987 until 2005, and was deputy mayor from 2005 to 2015, when he was elected to the Knesset. He was also on the Jewish Agency’s Board of Trustees from 2011.

Bitan entered the Knesset by running for the spot saved by the party for a representative from the Shfela, the Judean foothills. He won with 6,213 votes, which doesn’t sound like much, but is the most that any of the regional representatives received.

Bitan became coalition chairman after a pitched battle in the Likud faction, with MK Yoav Kisch as his main competition, for a job that elevates a freshman MK to work closely with the prime minister and guarantees increased media attention.

Working in Bitan’s favor was the fact that he is what Israelis like to call a “bulldozer” – he gets things done, no matter who is in his way. The case critics made against Bitan, who had been Knesset House Committee chairman for almost a year at that point, was focused on his character: Bitan has a temper; he’s impulsive and undisciplined; he’s too pushy; he doesn’t know how to reach agreements with people.

Five months later, it seems like the arguments on both side are true.

It’s not rare for a coalition chairman to dominate headlines. After all, a big part of the job is to do the prime minister’s bidding and make sure his policies are approved in the Knesset. When all is going well for the prime minister, that job entails whipping votes in the coalition; when the prime minister is having a tougher time turning his positions into law, the coalition chairman is in charge of negotiating a way to get them through.

Therefore, the coalition chairman is often seen as a surrogate for the prime minister in the press and in legislative debates, although, because of the position, coalition chairmen have an easier time pushing through their own initiatives as well.

Two of the three chairmen preceding Bitan were no strangers to controversy and headlines – Tourism Minister Yariv Levin and Environmental Protection Minister Ze’ev Elkin; Minister without Portfolio Tzachi Hanegbi was the exception because he actively sought to avoid attention – and all have close relationships with Netanyahu and moved up to becoming ministers.

While Bitan may not be exceptional in the amount of headlines, the type of news he generates is unique in recent years, mainly due to his temperament.

Elkin is a former chess champion, and gained a reputation for being an expert political dealmaker, with comparisons to Frank Underwood of the American political drama House of Cards.

Levin and Hanegbi are both relatively quiet and reserved for politicians, with the former being a policy wonk who gives the impression of measuring every word he says, and the latter, one of the longest-serving MKs in a job that’s often given to rookies, seeming to respond like Danny Glover in the Lethal Weapon series whenever things got messy: He’s too old for this shit.

Bitan, however, tends towards impulsiveness in speech, stubbornness in action and has a temper that leads him to lash out at the press and fellow MKs. Two more minutes of thought, and he could have expressed himself more clearly, as he did on an Army Radio interview Sunday morning: Yes, Rabin’s murder was politically motivated, but it did not come from any political party’s prodding, and the Likud is sick of the party and Netanyahu being unfairly blamed for it.

Or perhaps, he could have said that senior IBC journalists have publicly expressed left-wing positions, raising concerns of bias and could have cited examples on Facebook. Or, since the IBC has hired quite a few prominent right-wing reporters, Bitan could pick a more convincing argument for closing it.

It’s clear that Bitan went from a relatively unknown Likud backbencher to a headline-maker by becoming Netanyahu’s mouthpiece. The problem is that he keeps putting his foot in his mouth.

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