Among the pictures that adorn MK David Bitan's office is one behind his chair, showing Bitan and Netanyahu together, with the inscription "Those who believe are not afraid, and those who are loyal will be elected." An amusing picture given the murky relationship between the two. "We're not in the same relationship we were before," Bitan admits.
Bitan is still angry at Netanyahu, who he claims did not support him in the primaries, Netanyahu is angry at Bitan's public criticism of the government. "Sometimes Netanyahu hears my criticism and moves in my direction," Bitan says, revealing: "Next week we'll have a meeting to straighten things out."
"We're not in the same relationship we were before." Bitan and Netanyahu in better days, photo: Oren Ben Hakon
Did he send people to ask you to stop the criticism?
"One time one of his people sent me about something I said. I don't want to elaborate."
What did he ask for?
What was the spirit of things?
"Criticism of something I said."
You sting him quite a bit.
"I'm not stinging, I'm criticizing. If he doesn't send a message from anyone, it means he accepts things as they are."
They say that you flipped over in order to please the prosecution and judges, to ease the hearings against you in court, or that you criticize the government and the reform not because you "want to stop the legislation but the investigation." Because of your personal affairs.
"Nonsense in tomato juice. I behave in law as if I are not a MK, and in the Knesset as if I have no law. My criticism has nothing to do with the sentence. Do you think what I say affects the sentence?! Nonsense of journalists caught on by the activists. It makes sense to them, but my criticism has nothing to do with it."
"He doesn't understand politics at all." Yariv Levin, Photo: Oren Ben Hakon
How will your trial end?
"Hope the best. We are fighting. I think I'll win."
Do you feel that you are less popular in the Likud?
"It depends. If you refer to staunch Bibi supporters, then less popular. Not everyone makes it the same."
"I'm nobody's yes-man"
Netanyahu and the government are not alone. In recent months, Bitan has been particularly critical of Justice Minister Yariv Levin.
"He went too hard with the reform," Bitan says. "It was a strategic and tactical mistake. The justice system needs to be reformed, but speed has created a defensive wall on the other side that is difficult to deal with. This has security, political, economic and social implications.
"Levine didn't see what was happening outside." Protest against the legal reform, photo: Reuters
"The speed and haste did damage. The war between us did damage, so the prime minister suspended the reform. Levine didn't see what was happening outside, didn't go to a compromise at the right moment. He doesn't understand politics at all."
Did he damage the Likud?
"Of course. The Likud was hurt by this."
Did he cause damage to the country?
"Now no. It stopped in time."
They say reform is dead.
"She's not dead, they'll transfer something of her but nothing dramatic."
And Levine will resign?
"I don't know what he intends to do, but I don't think he will leave the government. If he leaves the Justice Department, he'll probably get another case."
Is it feasible?
"It could be."
Do you hear something like that from him?
"We don't talk. They don't call."
"I'm nobody's yes-man. Not for everything he says I have to say amen. I have a criticism. I said it in the media. He hasn't said hello to me since. You don't have to."
How long has it been like this?
"Two and a half months. Total disconnect. Not even goodbye. When we spoke, he told me, 'Let me pass the reform in its first reading,' and promised that afterwards we would sit down and consult. In the end, he moved on without consulting. I realized I had no one to talk to. Don't forget that thanks to me he is in the Knesset. I supported him at the beginning."
"The reform is not dead, they will pass something of it but nothing dramatic." High Court of Justice, Photo: Oren Ben Hakon
How much is Netanyahu influenced by Levin?
"Less today. In the past much more, but I don't want to elaborate."
"Finance is not doing enough"
Bitan currently heads the Economy Committee, and in recent weeks has been trying to increase the struggle against the cost of living. "Our situation is not good, that's perfectly clear. The big companies have lost their shame, they're not afraid of the government and they don't care about the public."
Who is it?
"The ones where most of the products are theirs – Tnuva, Osem, the big importers. Everyone raises prices. They go up because the dollar goes up, but when the dollar goes down, they don't go down. The reforms that governments are bringing have no effect. We need actions that will bring immediate results."
Where have you been until today?
"I did work in the committee and in the media, and we got the government to finally get into it and Netanyahu to set up a committee. In my opinion, within a year you can see results."
Maybe you were too busy with reform and forgot about the cost of living?
"We can work on both the reform and the cost of living. The reform stole the media's attention, but we dealt with both this and that."
This week, Netanyahu appointed a committee on the matter, but this is the fifth time. What will change?
"It's good that a committee headed by him was established, it's important. Is there room for this? It depends on whether there will be results."
"Not setting policy." Minister of Finance Smotrich, photo: Oren Ben Hakon
How do you see Economy Minister Nir Barkat's activity?
"His job is to bring regulation and legislation, he's working on it, not yet quickly. I don't complain, it takes time to bring laws. Its functioning is reasonable, but you can't test it in a few months."
And Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich's?
"The Finance Ministry has to fund some of the problems right now. I'll give you an example: When the price of supervised milk went up, I told him that it would raise all the prices in the market and that we had to intervene. I asked for 100 million shekels to delay the immigration until September. He refused to bring, made conditions. He accepts the policies of Treasury officials. A finance minister should stop listening to officials. But you can talk to him, he's an open person. He passed a budget, which is a beautiful achievement that the previous government celebrated. He needs to set policy."
Does it do enough to your liking?
"Not yet. I hope he does more."
Is Netanyahu doing enough about the cost of living?
"Not yet. The prime minister took a committee project, and that's good. We need immediate decisions."
"The prime minister can't say no"
On his impression of the government's work during its first six months in office, Bitan says, "The government's situation is problematic and difficult. This is due to the fact that there is no alternative. All parties can demand a lot and accept, because there is no alternative. That's the situation, you can't change it.
"The Likud will not dismantle the government, so the partners are demanding more and more. We saw it in the coalition negotiations, that the Likud gave up all the assets and today it is difficult for it to be expressed, and we saw it now in the budget."
Chairman of the Economy Committee MK David Bitan on the increase in milk prices // Credit: Knesset Spokesperson's Office
Can't Netanyahu say "no"?
"He can't, because there's no alternative. It's out of his control. There is another problem - because the government is homogeneous there are a lot of problems, everyone is competing for the same votes, everyone wants to show achievements at the expense of the other party. It creates problems."
What do you think about Ben-Gvir's performance?
"He is a man who creates problems within the coalition. I want to succeed in the job at our expense."
Is he successful in the role?
"Not so much. It's important for him to succeed, for the good of the country, but I don't see that happening right now."
Amit Segal posted this week that you are behind anonymous messages against Netanyahu's adviser. What happened there?
"I have nothing to do with it, I didn't ask for it, I didn't do it."
You are the signatory of the message invitation.
"I didn't send it. That's not my method, I don't send messages like that."
"Can't say no." Netanyahu, Photo: Jonathan Zindel/Flash90
Could it be someone from your headquarters?
"I don't know. I'm in the process of clarifying. I didn't know about it."
Amsalem, your close friend, said, before accepting a position, that the Likud is "harming Muslims and Bittans." Has it passed?
"Amsalem and I are good friends. He was angry and felt hurt. I didn't agree with that. He spoke from the heart, that's how he felt. He deserved a senior position, and now Netanyahu is fixing it."
Will the government fill its days?
"All governments in recent years have served an average of three years. I don't believe we will complete a term, but after passing a two-year budget, we will advance to the average. What will happen next? I don't know."
So David Bitan gives the government only three years?
"Something like that, like all governments."
Are you joining MK Nissim Vatori's cruise?
"How come on," he laughs, "why should I join? I have nothing to do with my life, do you think?! Let everyone do whatever they want."
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