Israel's Finance Chief Shuns Big Names as He Recalculates Election Strategy

Kulanu's Moshe Kahlon understands that the fate of his party is up to him, and is now turning to younger voters while hoping to partner with Gabi Ashkenazi

FILE Photo: Moshe Kahlon during a press conference.
Olivier Fitoussi

Finance Minister and Kulanu party head Moshe Kahlon has just married off his son Idan. As opposed to the usual routine for such event, only two politicians were invited to the event held on Thursday in Emek Hefer, two close friends of his, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein of Likud and MK Revital Swid of Labor.  

Kahlon, busy with family matters surrounding the wedding, set aside election matters, with plans to pick up campaign issues on Sunday. 
In effect the campaign was already planned out from the moment he took office as treasurer four years ago. Over the years Kahlon repeatedly has said that the only thing he knows how to do is politics: “It’s my livelihood, it’s how I feed my children,” he says.

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Kahlon’s political skills have helped him launch a party from scratch, win 10 seats in parliament and his title as finance minister. He precisely pointpointed his potential voters and focused on economic policies. Still after all the changes of the past weeks, the Kahlon campaign feels like it’s just at its starting point.

In contrast with the 2015 campaign, whoever votes for Kulanu during the upcoming election will be voting for Kahlon, the rest of the names on the list has no significance. The past term has taught us that it’s all about Kahlon, who prefers soldiers to carry out his policies over those who sit in studios and talk about themselves.

In effect, all Kulanu’s senior members – if there were still around – have left. Housing Minister Yoav Galant, who was number two, Committee chairman MK Eli Alalouf, who was in the third spot, Michael Oren, in fourth, and MK Rachel Azaria, in fifth, will not continue on to another term.

Former cabinet minister Avi Gabbay left long ago. Those taking their places are totally unknown names. The head of his campaign, Nadav Sheinberger, is set to become the party caucus chair. The Environmental Protection Ministry’s director general, Yisrael Danziger, one of Kulanu’s founders, is also en route to getting elected to the Knesset. But the most surprising name of all is Leehee Golan, his 1992-born personal assistant. If elected Golan would become one of the youngest lawmakers in Israeli history.  She met Kahlon at a Be’er Sheva campaign event before the previous election and rose through the ranks, starting out as a minor activist in their headquarters. Golan became his personal assistant in the past year and has even moved to Haifa to work closer with Kahlon. Eyebrows have been raised within the party at Golan’s lack of experience and social media skills. 

Kahlon has also learned that it’s a good idea to save money for the elections rather than waste it on an inflated coterie.  Until a few months ago Kulanu had no offices. Yoav Rafael would hold meetings at the Aroma café in Be’er Ya’akov in central Israel. At the end of 2017 Kahlon had 12 million shekels ($3.2 million) in cash and has probably amassed a few million more in the past year. The money allows him to swiftly build a campaign, such as the front page ad he bought in Yisrael Hayom the day after early elections were called.

Kahlon has crisscrossed the country to support Kulanu’s candidates for local elections to the point where he barely made it to the office and didn’t quell a feud that developed among some of the branches of the Treasury. Kahlon also learned a third lesson during this time: People want to see real content not a few nice faces or slogans. Accordingly, he intends to stress his achievements of the past four years and focus on a handpicked constituency. Kahlon has noticed a drop in the average age of Kulanu supporters and is expected to now focus his efforts on younger voters. 

With regard to MK Orli Levi-Abekasis, one of his main rivals, Kulanu seems to believe she will loose her momentum despite polls showing that Levi-Abekasis will cost the party two seats in the Knesset. 

As for potential partnerships, Kahlon is not looking for big names but imagines none will come up. In the past he considered partnering with former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and even ordered an in-depth survey. The findings showed that Ya’alon would weaken him. For now Kahlon has no interest in a former chief of staff and even regards such a candidate as a burden. 

He would be happy to have former Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, and has reached out to him, but thus far, unsuccessfully. Kahlon is still in touch with Gantz, but as with other leaders the issue of who gets the top spot serves a key obstacle in the talks. However the idea of giving in to a general who has never served on the Knesset drives Kahlon crazy. Linking up with Likud is not being considered, and Kahlon has had help in running his campaign from strategic adviser Lior Chorev, who isn’t on particularly good terms with Netanyahu.  

In Kahlon’s camp, in any case, they feel the election results will be relevant only for a year. Political players expect Netanyahu to be indicted during 2020. Kahlon is taking care to bolster himself with declarations that he won’t sit in a government whose prime minister is accused of criminal wrongdoing, no matter what the charges. The working assumption is that Netanyahu will drag Israel to another election unless he’s toppled by his own party.  Kahlon definitely sees himself as a potential candidate for prime minister in another year, whether before or after an election. He will build himself accordingly in this election and in the coming year.