Ex-Netanyahu Chief of Staff Slams 'Coward' Finance Minister Amid Election Whispers

Amid the graft probes into Netanyahu and speculation a new election might be called, Natan Eshel questions Moshe Kahlon's ability to lead

Natan Eshel in Jerusalem, 2012.
Olivier Fitoussi

Natan Eshel, a former chief of staff to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has harshly attacked Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, calling him a “vacillator” and “coward” in WhatsApp messages sent to journalists, television news reported Saturday night.

Eshel, who stepped down as chief of staff in 2012 amid sexual harassment allegations, is considered extremely close to both Netanyahu and his wife Sara.

“If he is unable to withstand the protests by leftists who want to bring down Netanyahu, how will he be able to lead?” Eshel said about Kahlon in messages reported by Channel 10 News and the Israel National News Company, formerly known as Channel 2 News.

Eshel said Kahlon intended to have his center-right Kulanu party join up with Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid, which has done well in recent opinion polls. “It's not a question of if but when,” Eshel wrote.

Eshel said Kahlon had promised in July 2016 that he would not run again for the Knesset if housing prices did not fall by the end of that year. “Prices are only rising,” Eshel wrote.

Speaking to the News Company on Saturday night, Eshel toned down his comments, saying “my friend Moshe Kahlon is an excellent finance minister and I hope he will be for many more years, and maybe in the future as part of Likud, where they are very interested in him and not God forbid in political adventures that would be bad for him and the right.”

For its part, Likud told Channel 10: “The things attributed to Natan Eshel, whether they were said or not, contradict the opinion of Prime Minister Netanyahu, who works in full cooperation and with mutual esteem with Finance Minister Kahlon.” Likud said Netanyahu and Kahlon would continue to work together, for example, to pass the 2019 budget in the run-up to the next election due by November 2019.

In Eshel’s 2012 deal with the Civil Service Commission, he admitted only to improper behavior after a female employee accused him of sexual harassment. Eshel also signed a commitment not to work in the public service again.

Tensions between Kulanu and Likud have worsened amid Likud’s advancing of legislation this year to prevent the police from making recommendations to prosecutors in criminal cases, a law originally designed to protect Netanyahu. Kahlon played a crucial role in keeping the law, which was passed last week, from applying to the corruption investigations currently underway against Netanyahu.

Last week, associates of Kahlon told Haaretz he was very worried that the police might soon recommend that Netanyahu be indicted. Kahlon would then face enormous pressure from the public and media to support the calling of a new election.