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Moshe Kahlon: Israel's New Messiah

The ex-minister is the latest find in Israel’s never-ending search for saviors. But what about the fact that we know little about his stance on Israel’s security situation?

Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter
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Moshe Kahlon at a press conference at Haifa University, Dec. 3, 2014.
Moshe Kahlon at a press conference at Haifa University, Dec. 3, 2014.Credit: Rami Shlush
Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter

Say, have you heard about Israel’s new messiah? He can’t turn water into wine, but he can bring down cellphone charges by 90 percent. When he comes, he’s going to fix everything. He’s not like those other guys. The ones that couldn’t, can’t.

Israel’s upcoming election, currently set for March 17, is arguably the most redundant, gratuitous election Israel has ever had. In this election, everything seems predetermined: The right wing is expected to strengthen, the left wing, whatever’s left of it, is expected to lag far behind. Yair Lapid, the Great White Hope of the previous election in Israel, is expected to crash and burn following his disastrous turn as finance minister. Benjamin Netanyahu, in all likelihood, will still be leader of the biggest party in the Knesset. Come March 18, Israel will still be mired in conflict, isolated, economically stagnant, dangerously devoid of virility or hope.

The one possible element of surprise, though, is former Communications Minister Moshe Kahlon, who announced officially last week that he will indeed run in the upcoming election as head of his own party. According to a recent poll by Channel 10, Kahlon’s new party – still devoid of a name, platform or people other than himself – is expected to win 12 seats in March. Given that he conducts a good campaign, he might win more.

This makes Kahlon, potentially, the deciding factor in who will be Israel’s next prime minister. It also marks him as this election’s designated Savior, an enviable position usually reserved for fresh-faced “baby” politicians who promise fix to Everything That’s Wrong and are immediately rewarded with thousands of votes.

The phenomenon of finding temporary “messiahs” – either a charismatic star or a new party filled with several stars – on which to pin great hopes for implausible salvation, a modern twist on the Jerusalem Syndrome, is an infamous Israeli habit.

Lapid, who ascended from being a news anchor to winning 19 Knesset seats in 2013, was one such temporary messiah. Before him, there was Shinui (“change”), the party led by his late father, Yosef “Tommy” Lapid. Before that, there was Tzomet, the party led by the late former IDF chief of staff Rafael Eitan that won eight Knesset seats in 1992 and then quickly disappeared. And before them all there was the Democratic Movement for Change (Dash), which swept through the polls in 1977 to win 15 seats, only to disintegrate shortly after.

Usually, these trendy saviors are carried on the wings of popular anger – against corruption, or high cost of living, or an assumed ultra-Orthodox takeover – and fall apart shortly thereafter, once the hopes that carried them into office are smashed against the grim walls of Israeli stasis.

In order to qualify as “messiah,” it is important for a politician to have three things: integrity (or at least the appearance of integrity), stature and political inexperience. It helps if said savior is a former army general, like Ehud Barak in 1999. But the element of mystery is the most crucial: For the effect to work, the public has to know very little about the candidate’s agenda. For Lapid, who rose to prominence in 2012 on the strength of popular rage and vague slogans like “where’s the money?” this strategy worked like a charm.

An aura of wonder

But Kahlon is different from all the various saviors. A politician who made his name entirely on issues relating to Israel’s high cost of living, he is the single greatest representation – even more so than Yair Lapid – of the changing concerns of Israelis in recent years.

The fact that we know very little about where he stands when it comes to Israel’s security situation? That’s beside the point. In fact, that might be the point in itself.

Kahlon rarely talks about Palestinians, and it is clear that Israel’s security situation is secondary in his view to Israel’s internal economic battles. In this, he was joined by the majority of Israeli voters who, fatigued and despaired of politicians who talk about peace or about Iran, voted a hugely civic-minded Knesset in 2013 to take care of their soaring housing prices and Milky chocolate pudding bills. How far the violence that has rocked Israel since the summer may have changed can be determined by the number of seats Kahlon wins.

Hugely popular after his successful term as Minister of Communications, Kahlon comes to this election as an already-established brand. As far as fantasies go, he is the closest thing possible to the real deal. While Lapid had no actual experience with leading reforms or bending powerful interest groups, Kahlon has already done that.

He was born in 1960 in Hadera to parents who emigrated to Israel from Libya, the fifth of seven brothers. As a teenager, he went to the Hadassah Neurim Youth Village, a boarding school and educational institution. He began his career in local politics in the 1980s, and first entered the Knesset in 2003 as a member of Likud. He was immensely popular within the party, and quickly rose up the ranks: In 2006 he placed third in the Likud list in that year’s election.

In 2009, he was appointed by Netanyahu as Minister of Communications. That’s where Kahlon, then an unremarkable politician, made his mark. Back then, Israel’s cellular market was dominated by a cartel-like group of three cellphone operators controlled by some of Israel’s biggest and most powerful business tycoons. For nearly 20 years, Israelis suffered under the burden of these three operators Cellcom, Orange (Partner) and Pelephone: Their prices were outrageously high and nearly identical, their service was atrocious and contracts were draconian. And while Israelis suffered, the companies made big bucks: In 2010 they raked in revenues of 19 billion shekels. Their controlling shareholders enjoyed huge dividends.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Credit: Reuters

Then came Kahlon, a seemingly non-brilliant technocrat, and changed all that forever. Eager to make his mark, he came across a proposed reform that would open up the cellphone market for competition, and decided to implement it. It wasn’t easy – for over a year, he came under heavy pressure from anyone who benefited from the distorted situation in Israel’s telecom market, from lobbyists to journalists and even – according to a report by political journalists Tomer Avital and Tal Shneider – senior army officers who warned that opening the cellphone market to competition might hurt the Iron Dome project, due to the “proliferation of frequencies.”

Kahlon’s reform did eventually go through, and it made a splash of historic proportions. Cellphone charges dropped by 90 percent – in Israel today you can get an unlimited cellphone plan for the price of a burger. The domino effect that this caused contributed to the fall of two of Israel’s biggest tycoons: Ilan Ben-Dov (formerly Partner) and Nochi Dankner (formerly Cellcom). More importantly, it taught Israelis that two long-thought impossible deeds were, in fact, possible: one, that it is conceivable to fight Israel’s tycoons and win; and two, that an Israeli minister can actually do the job he was appointed to do.

Kahlon’s victory was so immense that he became, almost overnight, Israel’s most popular politician (a Channel 2 poll placed him higher than Netanyahu). Netanyahu, eager to share the credit, famously helped Kahlon build his brand by instructing the rest of his ministers to “be like Kahlon – find solutions.”

In 2011 Netayahu put Kahlon in charge of another ministry, this time’s Israel least prestigious and most troubled ministry: welfare. Luckily for Kahlon, his accomplishments in the telecom field were so immense that he could get away with the fact that he was a lousy social affairs minister.

When protests against Israel’s high cost of living raged through the country for an entire summer in 2011, Kahlon was the man of the hour. While Israelis protested against high prices and extreme levels of wealth concentration, here was a man who significantly eased their pains by going toe-to-toe with Big Business. As Israel’s political discourse veered away from the Palestinian conflict to social and economic issues, here was a man who was the epitome of economic reform.

This gave Kahlon an impregnable aura of infallibility. He was already touted as a would-be prime minister, potentially Israel’s first of Sephardi descent. But as the government around him came under fire, so could his newfound status be threatened.

So, ahead of the 2013 election, he bailed. Announcing he is “taking a break” from politics, Kahlon stayed away from Likud primaries, even though he was sure-fire winner for the first position following Netanyahu.

For the next two years, Kahlon did little and tended to stay away from the limelight: He attended a management program in Harvard for a few months. He almost became head of The Israel Land Administration, the Israeli government body that manages land in the public domain (over 90 percent of the land in Israel), but eventually didn’t due to internal Likud politicking.

From time to time he would give interviews, or speak at public events. He made sure he said all the right things: After cellphones, he marked the next economic field rife with overcharges and lack of competition – banking. As his return to politics became imminent, so did the volume of his denunciations of Israel’s highly-concentrated, monopolistic banking system increase.

Over time, he started to harshly criticize the government, especially when it came to Israel’s housing crisis. “The housing prices crisis will not be resolved, because no one wants to solve it. It is a lucrative state industry,” he said in December 2013. Less than a year earlier, Yair Lapid won 19 seats in the Knesset on promises to bring housing prices down.

In October, Kahlon officially announced his return to politics. Now, two years since he left, here he is, ready to cash in his chips.

Get me a general, a social activist and a woman

So, is Moshe Kahlon the real deal? The thought is tempting. We know he can be a good minister, but can he lead?

Going against Big Business is relatively easy when you’re a minister. Going against powerful tycoons when you’re trying to get elected, though, is another story altogether.

Right now there are more questions marks surrounding Kahlon than exclamation marks. We know his platform would focus heavily on issues relating to Israel’s cost of living – that’s his claim to fame, after all, and there is nothing else that can unite Israelis of all persuasions together under the same banner.

When it comes to his views of Israel’s overall challenges, Kahlon so far has given only partial answers. His position on foreign affairs and security issues, though, is a mystery. His recipe for solving the Palestinian questions? A question in itself, with very few answers. Kahlon did come from the Likud, after all, and he is right of center on security issues, but he rarely talks about it and not much else is known.

This weekend, while officially launching his campaign, Kahlon tried to appeal to Israeli centrist voters by saying that he is “from the real Likud, the one that knows how make peace and hand over territories,” alluding to his willingness to break the peace process impasse.

But a rare talk about the subject of a Palestinian state given to young members of Likud three years ago reveals quite a bit about the less-known part of Kahlon’s views. In the talk, revealed by Channel 2 News in 2011, Kahlon said what he thinks Israel should do if the Palestinians unilaterally declare independence. “We should annex all the territories that same day,” he said. Also in the talk, Kahlon boasted that Israel is building outside of the large settlement blocs in the West Bank “at an admirable pace.”

Conceivably he could form an alliance with other right-wing parties. Indeed, Channel 10 reported on Wednesday that he is currently negotiating with Lapid and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Over the weekend he refused to rule out the option of joining a government led by Netanyahu, saying “I did not make plans for two years just to sit on the sidelines.”

In the meantime, Kahlon is reportedly building his party, anxiously looking for a “senior defense personality” in the form of a former general. Also, he is reportedly looking for decorated social activists and a senior female politician.

This is hardly news, though. “Former general, social activist, strong female” is the official recipe for any trend party in Israeli politics since the 1990s at least.

All these questions, though, don’t mean that Kahlon will suffer in any way coming into the upcoming election. In fact, as Lapid demonstrated last year, vagueness is a good thing. It helps a candidate build an image of purity, of someone untouched by political compromise, ethical questions and possible defeat.

But winning multiple Knesset seats is one thing, and doing something significant with them is another thing entirely. Will Kahlon succeed where all his predecessors in the savior slot failed and truly make a difference, or will he disintegrate rapidly?

Right now, Kahlon is a question mark. Come March 18, he might become something else.

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