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Analysis

In targeting Amsalem, Netanyahu sends a message to all senior members of Likud

Opposition chief threw his loyalist under the bus over a remark that a coalition with Ra’am is possible; but his public repudiation of Amsalem may yet cost him dearly

Shalom Yerushalmi

Shalom Yerushalmi is the political analyst for Zman Israel, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew current affairs website

Likud MK David Amsalem attends a Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee meeting on June 26, 2022. (Olivier FItoussi/Flash90)
Likud MK David Amsalem attends a Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee meeting on June 26, 2022. (Olivier FItoussi/Flash90)

Likud MK David Amsalem sat quietly through much of a session of the Knesset’s Constitution Law and Justice Committee on Sunday.

The silence was uncharacteristic of Amsalem, especially since the panel was debating a law that could block politicians under criminal indictment — such as his party chief, opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu — from forming a government.

Amsalem, the ultimate Netanyahu supporter, had told Channel 12 news earlier in the day that Mansour Abbas and his Islamist Ra’am party would be welcome in a coalition led by the Likud party, as long as the coalition would not have to rely on Ra’am to reach the 61 seats needed for a Knesset majority.

Amsalem’s phone was bombarded with reactions to the interview. While similar remarks had previously been made by him and other Likud MKs over the past year, this time the comments were viewed by many as a serious blow to Likud’s campaign in the expected upcoming election and its positioning itself as completely opposed to Arab parties.

Then, Amsalem’s good friend and fellow Likud MK David Bitan came in to join the committee meeting.

“What happened to you? Have you gone mad?” he asked Amsalem.

Then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and coalition chairman David Amsalem converse during a Likud faction meeting at the Knesset on December 25, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Amsalem tried to explain that he meant to say he had nothing against Arabs.

“We aren’t racists, the left is racist. If we had 61 [seats], why wouldn’t they join?” he said.

Then came Netanyahu’s scathing response. The Likud party chair publicly lambasted Amsalem in full force, their friendship forgotten.

“I was dumbfounded to hear the things Dudi Amsalem said, which is his opinion alone, just like as has happened in the past,” Netanyahu tweeted.

The stunned Amsalem lost control of himself. Finally speaking up at the committee meeting, he took things too far in the other direction in an attempt to clean up his mess.

“We will establish a government of 61 Jews,” Amsalem declared.

“What about Druze?” someone asked.

“With Jews and other Zionists,” he corrected himself.

But Netanyahu’s blunt and unequivocal renunciation of Amsalem continues to resonate.

Netanyahu is aware that the next few days are crucial for Likud. In a  month, primaries will be held for the leadership of the party and for the slate of potential MKs — all of whom are looking for a platform and a show of support from the Likud chairman, which can bring in a lot of votes.

For example, even though Miri Regev hasn’t attended Constitution committee sessions even once over the past year, she came on Sunday for the discussions on the controversial bill to block politicians under criminal indictment from forming a government.

The long-shot bill could prevent the next government from being headed by Netanyahu, on whom Regev showered endless praise at the meeting.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Culture Minister Miri Regev shake hands during the opening of the winter session of the Knesset on October 23, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Netanyahu currently has no realistic opponents for the Likud leadership, but there is a real battle for places at the top of the slate.

Amsalem’s popularity in Likud is enormous because of the uncompromising backing he has given to Netanyahu throughout the year. Netanyahu’s reciprocal backing in this moment of truth would have made Amsalem a serious candidate for first place on the slate.

But Netanyahu does not like having ambitious people around him. History is littered with Likud high-flyers who have been beaten down by Netanyahu.

The first was Ariel Sharon, whom Netanyahu refused to include in his first government in 1996, causing Sharon real damage, including to his health.

Sharon was followed by dozens of other good and talented politicians that Netanyahu threw under the bus, including Naftali Bennett, Gideon Sa’ar and Avigdor Liberman, who had all served in senior positions under the then-prime minister before banding together as heads of competing parties to help replace him last year.

Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman, left to right, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar and deputy minister Abir Kara present new plan to cut back Israeli red tape; Jerusalem, July 6, 2021 (Kobi Gideon / GPO)

Netanyahu wounded Amsalem to the depths of his soul, and knew it. The assessment within the Likud party is that Netanyahu wanted to send a message to the other candidates at the top of the party, so that they will not get over-confident and step out of line.

Still, the confrontation with Amsalem marks a serious error by Netanyahu.

Amsalem, his number one soldier, fought for him on all fronts.

Amsalem takes everything personally. Liberman was his best friend for years, but today Amsalem won’t talk to the Yisrael Beytenu head because of the latter’s battle with Netanyahu.

Netanyahu cannot afford to lose such a loyalist.

Amsalem is unpredictable and if this situation deteriorates, he may reveal everything he and others know about Netanyahu’s negotiations to attempt last year to build a coalition that would have included Ra’am’s Abbas, the man Netanyahu now calls “the antisemite and supporter of terrorism.”

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