The Man Who Hoped to Succeed Netanyahu Bows Out of Israeli Politics – for Now

'It's impossible to know what will happen,' Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon tells Haaretz about his political future, after deciding not to run in the March 2 election

Kahlon campaigning in February 2019, but he's sitting this one out.
Tomer Appelbaum

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon never imagined that the first election of the past year would end as it did. After his Kulanu party won just four seats in April 2019, he flew to Barcelona and wouldn’t answer the phone or speak with his party’s Knesset members. His plan was to resign shortly after the election, as soon as a new government was sworn in.

Since then, nine months have passed and Kahlon was still in  politics, with no purpose. But this week, five years and one month after announcing his return to politics, the man who had hoped to run for prime minister someday, quietly abandoned the ship, with no statements or press conferences. He will remain in his post only until a new government is formed.

When the Knesset dissolved in January 2019, Kahlon hoped to leverage his party’s predicted success in April’s election to brand himself as a candidate to succeed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

He repeatedly highlighted his meetings with the Palestinian finance minister to build himself up a reputation as a judicious, statesmanlike figure at ease with diplomacy. His resume included opposing the disengagement from the Gaza Strip, years in the ruling Likud party and stints as both communications and finance minister.

He was convinced the public would value his achievements at the treasury, and that even if he didn’t win 10 seats again, he’d at least get eight. In any case, he thought, a new election would have to be called within a year, once Netanyahu was indicted.

In private conversations, he has blamed the rise of the Kahol Lavan party for his downfall. Yesh Atid voters who had moved to Kulanu in the 2015 election switched to Kahol Lavan in 2019 to try to oust Netanyahu, he said.

One person told him he had erred by backing Netanyahu during the campaign. But Kahlon said this was irrelevant – he would never have satisfied “anyone but Bibi” voters in any case.

He decided to merge Kulanu with Likud prior to September’s do-over election because he had no choice. He knew he had no chance of making it into the Knesset if he ran alone, but neither could he bear to dismantle Kulanu, the party in which he’d invested his all.

Kulanu MK Roy Folkman was disappointed with Kahlon and the link up with Netanyahu and considered resigning from the Knesset before September’s election, but Kahlon persuaded him to stay on. The day before the deadline for submitting party tickets for September’s election, he even agreed, at Netanyahu’s request, to join the Likud-Kulanu slate.

But as the ticket was being finalized, Kahlon asked him to resign in favor of Tali Ploskov, saying she would better be able to woo Russian-speaking voters away from Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party. Folkman was hurt.

After September’s election, Kahlon told Netanyahu several times that he wanted to quit, but each time, Netanyahu asked him to stay on. Eventually, Kahlon grew to like the idea of staying on so as to keep former Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, whom he loathes, from replacing him as finance minister.

Ironically, the tense relationship between Kahlon and Netanyahu during the previous government now became an ideal one. Though the budget deficit came in much higher than planned, creating a temptation for Netanyahu to blame his finance minister, the prime minister never said a word against Kahlon. And Kahlon reciprocated by agreeing to Netanyahu’s demand for an increase in the defense budget and periodically advising him about political events.

Kahlon has largely ceased to function as finance minister since April’s election. In the past, he would frequently wander through the ministry, escorted by a battalion of aides, looking for ways to produce achievements that would justify the enormous powers he had annexed to his ministry. But three people who hold key positions in the treasury said the frequency of meetings with Kahlon has dropped dramatically.

On Sunday, when Culture Minister Miri Regev raged at the head of the treasury’s budget department, Shaul Meridor, Kahlon remained silent. In the past, he always defended treasury officials.

He has devoted a lot of effort to fighting a state comptroller’s report about the unprecedented steps he took to paint a false picture of the deficit at the end of 2018. When a treasury official was asked whether Kahlon was preparing a budget proposal for 2020, he laughed bitterly.

Over the past nine months, Kahlon has talked to fewer people than usual. He virtually never speaks with journalists and doesn’t respond to messages. But in the last month, some of his key supporters have been invited to the ministry so he could say farewell.

“They didn’t want me,” he said. “They didn’t want my opinions. I paid a price for my support of the justice system. There’s nothing more for me to achieve at the Finance Ministry. You have to know when to leave.”

When asked why he didn’t stay in Likud to run for prime minister in the post-Netanyahu era, he said he has no interest in being prime minister. He plans to rest for a few months, and after that, he said, he doesn’t know what he’ll do.

Asked whether he’ll ever return to politics, he replied, “it’s impossible to know what will happen.” Perhaps someone who has already quit politics only to return, is now planning another departure to be followed by another comeback.