Analysis

Kahlon: A Sell-out Foretold

The Kulanu leader’s link-up with Netanyahu was only the latest in a series of moral implosions that belied his good-guy image

Kulanu Chairman Moshe Kahlon and Yisrael Beiteinu Chairman Avigdor Lieberman at the Knesset vote to dissolve the government, May 27, 2019.
Emil Salman

“Judging by what I’ve heard of Kahlon, the man’s promises are worthless,” said David Godovsky, the Yisrael Beiteinu party’s chief of staff, in a phone call to fellow party member and Deputy Interior Minister Faina Kirshenbaum in June 2014. After Kirshenbaum agreed, Godovsky added, referring to party chairman Avidgor Lieberman, “So if the boss has built anything on a promise of his …”

This dialogue shows that people with flexible moral spines can smell each other. Godovsky and Kirshenbaum detected Moshe Kahlon’s complete unreliability months before he first betrayed his voters. During the 2015 campaign, he promised to fight the reestablishment of a natural gas monopoly. But once appointed finance minister, he went AWOL, using the excuse of his friendship with Kobi Maimon, a tycoon with interests in the Tamar gas field.

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The two criminal suspects from Yisrael Beiteinu realized that the popular politician was a fraud years before he betrayed his voters a second time. Kahlon promised to protect the rule of law as head of an independent party, but raced into the arms of another criminal suspect, Benjamin Netanyahu. Now he seems poised to support bills that would grant Netanyahu immunity from prosecution and let the Knesset override Supreme Court decisions, both of which would change Israel’s system of government beyond recognition.

In that same 2014 conversation, incidentally, Kirshenbaum said her patron, Lieberman, “lies about everything. I catch him in a lie at every turn.” But in this regard, people always expected less of Lieberman than of Kahlon.

In 2012, Kahlon won acclaim by daring to reform the cellular service market. In a sense, that led to criminal investigations against two tycoons, Nochi Dankner and Shaul Elovitch. Had their companies, Cellcom and Pelephone, not ceased to be cash cows, Dankner might not have felt compelled to deceive investors in his IDB corporation and Elovitch might not have felt compelled to castrate his popular internet news site, Walla, to obtain regulatory benefits worth more than a billion shekels ($280 million) from Netanyahu.

That reform made Kahlon the enemy. Dankner’s newspaper, Maariv, attacked him, as did Elovitch’s Walla.

Yet the reform, combined with Kahlon’s split from Netanyahu’s Likud party, his shunning of the trappings of power and his seeming integrity, also made many other senior journalists exalt him. High-level public figures were similarly snared by his fabulous smile and phenomenal ability to tell people exactly what they wanted to hear. In 2015, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak even advised rightists to vote Kahlon, “an honest, genuine, businesslike, caring man.”

Barak and others apparently didn’t realize that behind that pleasant façade hid a cynical, untrustworthy politician. But Netanyahu, like the stars of the Yisrael Beiteinu corruption case, was one of the first to recognize the gap between Kahlon’s image – the man who rose from poverty to help the poor – and the reality.

In secret negotiations over a bribery deal with Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes, Netanyahu scoffed at the daily’s portrayal of Kahlon as “a simple man of the people,” pointing out Kahlon’s many friends among the natural gas tycoons, including Maimon and Yitzhak Tshuva. Former Interior Minister Avraham Poraz once related how Kahlon, as a freshman MK, asked him to advance Maimon’s interests in another business venture.

In the previous government, Kahlon did oppose his coalition partners’ delusional plans to neuter the High Court of Justice and the state comptroller. But since that was before Netanyahu faced indictment, this took no great courage; Netanyahu would probably have killed those proposals anyway.

Throughout his last 10 years as prime minister, Netanyahu consistently refrained from picking fights with the High Court. Thus, in reality, Kahlon didn’t put the brakes on Israel’s degeneration into a banana republic over the last four years.

But the day after last month’s election, Kahlon faced the ultimate test, and was beaten without a fight. His associates said he was mourning the results, deeply hurt that the masses had turned their backs on him, and no longer planned to serve as a shield for the rule of law.

He kept silent when it was clear that Netanyahu planned to pass corrupt legislation to save himself from standing trial. He didn’t utter a peep when his protégé, Roy Folkman, said he would support the override bill and let a man accused of bribery run the country.

Today, it’s clear this silence was calculated. Even then, Kahlon was planning a colossal betrayal of his voters, the political swindle of joining Likud.

For years, he cultivated the illusion that he was a different type of politician. This week, the mask came off.