Communications Minister Moshe Kahlon’s departure from politics dealt a severe blow to the Likud party. In addition to the popularity he earned in the public’s eye for his lowering of mobile phone rates, Kahlon was perceived as the Likud’s chief "social" member. His exit has been interpreted as a clear indication of his lack of faith in, and opposition to, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s economic and social policies.
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The fact that Kahlon is a Sephardic Jew actually turned him into a prominent “brand-name” in the Likud. Unlike the majority of its voters, the Likud’s Knesset slate is predominantly Ashkenazi. The only Sephardic Jew in the Likud’s top ten is Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom. Two other Sephardi Members of Knesset, Miri Regev and Gila Gamliel, are only in the third decile of Knesset candidates in this election ticket.
The decision to create a joint slate with Yisrael Beiteinu has only made the list of candidates even more Ashkenazi. Although Yisrael Beiteinu MK Orly Levy-Abekasis, daughter of legendary foreign minister David Levy, is ranked 16th on the joint list, Yisrael Beiteinu is still seen by the public as a party that represents immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
A few weeks ago, one of Shas’ triumvirate, Aryeh Deri, who is running the party’s election campaign headquarters, accused Likud-Beiteinu of having become “an arrogant and haughty party that represents Russians and whites.” When he made that statement, he also said that the Likud “has humiliated Kahlon and now it wants to humiliate the other Sephardic cabinet ministers as well. This is a wakeup call for all Sephardic Jews: It’s time to come home, the Likud is no longer your home.”
In the absence of Sephardic MKs, Netanyahu and the Likud have apparently decided to make a major effort in this election campaign to recruit Sephardic celebrities who are willing to express support for the Likud, or to at least appear in special events organized by the party. A Channel 10 entertainment program reported that the Likud is using the professional services of public relations expert Ronen Kouchli to recruit celebrities who are prepared to be photographed with Netanyahu and express their support for him.
Thus, a month before Election Day, Netanyahu suddenly reminded himself that he is a fan of Israeli songs that are Mediterranean (that is, Sephardic) in character, or that he adores soccer. Every few days, the gossip columns, especially those appearing in the Israel Hayom daily, feature items about Netanyahu meeting with a Sephardic singer, entertainer or celebrity in some other field. In most cases, publicizing the information was the initiative of the Likud’s campaign headquarters.
On December 20, Netanyahu had a meeting with singer Eyal Golan. The meeting took place in Netanyahu’s home and a photo documenting it appeared on his Facebook page under the title “Those who believe are never afraid.” A few days later the Maariv daily ran a report that the meeting focused on Golan’s participation in the Likud’s election campaign or, at least, in his expressing support for Netanyahu.
Two days later, on December 22, former soccer star Haim Revivo, who today heads the Israeli Professional Footballers Association (IFPA), declared that he would cast his ballot for Netanyahu. The two met, were photographed together and an announcement was issued to the effect that Revivo believed that it was “important to support the Prime Minister and to vote for Netanyahu.” Revivo is also actively participating in the Likud-Beiteinu’s election campaign: Last week in Ashdod, he addressed an election rally attended by Netanyahu.
On December 25, singer Sarit Hadad appeared at the Likud conference in Jerusalem and entered the pantheon of the party’s election campaign when she stood beside Netanyahu on the stage, singing one of her hit songs, “Ata totach” (“You’re a cannon”). A statement issued by the Likud said that Hadad “expressed her support for the Prime Minister.” Incidentally, that same performance, for which the Likud paid Hadad tens of thousands of shekels, turned out to be illegal, earning the party a sharp rebuke from the Central Elections Committee; the affair has been transferred to Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein, who will determine whether further punitive measures should be taken.
Last week, on January 15, stand-up comedian Shalom Assayag became the center of attention after he met with Netanyahu in the Prime Minister’s official residence in Jerusalem and after the Likud published a joint photo on Netanyahu’s Facebook page under the headline: “Stand-up comic Shalom Assayag met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this evening and expressed his support for the Likud-Beiteinu joint slate in this election campaign.”
Whether or not a connection exists, on the same day he met with the prime minister, Assayag was informed that his bid was successful in the tender for the hosting of a Friday night show on Channel 1, owned by the Israel Broadcasting Authority, which, in turn, is under Netanyahu’s direct control. Assayag rejected claims that he won the tender because of his political support for Netanyahu.
Will all the hugs and photo opportunities with Sephardic celebrities help Netanyahu attract voters or fill the vacuum created by Kahlon’s departure? Apparently not. This is, after all, one of the countless gimmicks that always crop up in an election campaign. On the other hand, it is interesting to note that all of these celebrities have publicly voiced support for Netanyahu.
There is nothing wrong with singers, actors or professional athletes expressing support for a politician. This is an accepted – and even welcome – practice in many countries. Nonetheless, it would be interesting to know whether Hadad, Golan, Revivo and Assayag also support Netanyahu’s positions on various issues.
Are they in favor of an attack on Iran, or the construction activity in West Bank settlements, or Netanyahu’s economic policies? They should provide answers to such questions – if not for Netanyahu’s sake, then at least for the sake of their many fans.