Netanyahu Taps Popular Likud Ex-minister to Head Israel Land Administration

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In a surprise move just two days before Israel's election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed outgoing Communications Minister Moshe Kahlon as chairman of the Israel Land Administration.

Some view the prime minister's move as a cynical election ploy driven by Kahlon's popularity for slashing cellular prices while heading the Communications Ministry.

Technically Kahlon will be chairing the Israel Land Administration Council, which shapes policy for the administration.

The ILA manages more than 90 percent of land in the country: it is responsible for freeing land for development, by virtue of which it has tremendous influence over housing prices.

Kahlon's appointment is meant to lower the cost of housing for Israelis, especially young couples and recently discharged IDF soldiers, Likud officials said.

The popular minister, who last October announced he would be taking a break from politics, is widely credited with lowering the cost of cellular phone service in Israel thanks to reforms that forced competition into the industry.

"I know that many people are saying this is difficult or impossible," Kahlon said Sunday about lowering housing costs. "In the cellular industry there were three companies, not one like the Israel Lands Administration. We added two more and five virtual ones, and we are seeing results. We will enable every citizen, every young couple to attain four walls and a roof over their heads."

Netanyahu said that he has had several conversations with Kahlon in recent months to persuade him to join the next government.

"I would like to praise Kahlon for taking this important task upon him and I promise to throw my full support behind him, just as I did with the communications reform," Netanyahu said. "We will be able to implement this change with a strong ruling party. I promised four years ago that we would strengthen the security of our citizens and protect the Israeli economy and I kept those two promises. Amid regional turmoil and a global economic crisis, I promise that we will lower housing prices."

In an effort to boost Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu ahead of Tuesday's vote, Netanyahu last week offered Kahlon the Finance Ministry portfolio in the new government, but the latter refused.

This past October, Kahlon unexpectedly announced that he was taking a break from politics and would not run on the Likud party slate in the election. Later that month, he reportedly mulled creating his own political party, but ultimately decided not to run.

In addition to its chairman, the Israel Land Council comprises representatives for the Prime Minister's Office, the Finance Ministry, the Interior Ministry, the Agriculture Ministry and two representatives for the Jewish National Fund.

One recent move the council made that had significant implications for homebuyers was to redefine "national priority areas," which afforded tax benefits to those who bought apartments or plots of land in those regions.

A more controversial council decision, made during the tenure of outgoing Housing and Construction Minister Ariel Atias (Shas), changed the criteria for eligibility for government-subsidized affordable housing. Rather than base eligibility on how long a couple has been married (which some said unfairly benefitted Haredim), the council replaced that with applicants' workforce participation.

Atias has also served as the chairman of the ILA during this term. Some pundits believe Netanyahu will also offer Kahlon the Housing and Construction Ministry portfolio when he forms the next government after Tuesday's election. According to Israeli law, the head of the ILA council must be a minister.

Moshe KahlonCredit: Shiran Granot
Prime MInister Benjamin Netanyahu and Moshe Kahlon at a press conference Jan. 20, 2013.Credit: Shiran Granot

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