In Charge of Communication, Israeli Minister Connects to Hearts and Minds

After lowering the price of cellphone subscription, Kahlon sets his sight on cable.

A well-known former Likud minister, someone who is no longer in politics, had the following custom: Before party primaries he "leaked" to the media that his name was on a "hit list" of candidates who were not to be voted for. A great hue and cry would ensue, and the politico would find himself cast in the role of the victim. In the primary itself, he would come out on the top of the list.

Some Likud veterans recalled him when they heard reports late last week about an eve-of-primary hit list making the rounds of the party's branches and containing the name of Communications and Social Affairs Minister Moshe Kahlon. No one actually saw any such list, and in the meantime the general election was cancelled, and with it the primary. But Kahlon got good mileage out of the hit-list story and then returned big-time to the headlines thanks to the revolution he helped foment in the cost of cell-phone calls.

The number of reforms attributed to Kahlon is for now the most quantifiable political asset that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can hold up to the voting public against allegations of the government's inaction about cost-of-living expenses. On Tuesday afternoon, at the height of media coverage of the cell-phone drama and the steep plunge in the price of phone packages - the prime minister's portrait appeared on his Facebook pace with a sales-promotion text: "Prices are plunging! With one phone call you can keep your old number and save hundreds of shekels a month. So take advantage of the opportunity!"

People who spoke with Kahlon the next day could hear a hint of delicate irony in his voice, in light of Netanyahu's spectacular leap onto the victory bandwagon of his communications minister. And there's more to come: Kahlon is promising an imminent revolution in the prices of smartphones and another in the prices of cable and satellite television packages.

"Those who leave their cell-phone operator and switch to a new operator at the new prices - and let's take an average family, with three or four cell phones, two for the parents and two for the children - will pay NIS 400 a month instead of NIS 1,000. That's an immediate saving of NIS 600 per family per month," Kahlon says.

"What's best," he adds, "is that this reform will affect mainly the weak population groups and the middle class. There is not a family today that does not have cell phones. It's a basic product. Every parent wants his child to go out in the evening with a phone."

According to Kahlon, the television reform can be expected to leave another NIS 300 in the family bank account: "The cellular companies are strong. They will be able to survive. So they won't make NIS 1.5 billion a year. That's not so terrible. They will get along with less. And the employees who get fired will find jobs with the new companies."

About a year ago, after Kahlon forced the mobile providers to lower their prices and eliminate fines for switching providers, Netanyahu advised his ministers "to be Kahlons." The prime minister can justifiably say that he was the first to discern the electoral potential latent in Kahlonism.

I asked Kahlon what else he is planning. "I never talk about what I will do, only about what I have done," he replied. He may soon face a cruel choice: which portfolio to part with. He took on the social affairs portfolio in January 2011, after the Labor Party had left the government.

The word is that this summer, after an arrangement is reached on the issue of drafting the ultra-Orthodox, Kadima will receive another two or three ministerial portfolios. Kahlon's understandable inclination is thus to retain the Communications Ministry. On the other hand, in June 2011, in an interview with this column, he declared his intention to be the country's first social affairs-oriented finance minister.

Maybe Netanyahu will solve the problem for him. No sane prime minister would want to get rid of a goose that lays golden electoral eggs. Confidants of Kahlon claimed this week that the Prime Minister's Bureau informed him that he would keep both of his current portfolios. "Not so," Netanyahu's aides were quick to shoot back, "we never announced or promised any such thing."

Playing the game

On Monday, Netanyahu found himself sweating unexpectedly over the election of the new state comptroller. His candidate, Joseph Shapira, a district judge, the man on whose behalf MK Dalia Itzik from Kadima and MK Yariv Levin from Likud collected signatures from 70 supportive MKs - failed in two rounds of voting to obtain the necessary 61 votes.

Netanyahu had been certain that Shapira would win hands down. He left the Knesset after the first round of voting. An hour or so later, he had to hurry back, in order to vote again. And again. Betwixt and between, he worked the phone and called ministers and MKs personally. "Go and vote," he urged them.

Why did Netanyahu work so hard for Shapira's election? Why, as one of the people under review by the State Comptroller's Office and for whom at least one investigation is highly critical - the so-called "Bibi-Tours" case, according to which he allegedly accepted funding from private business for trips taken by him and his family - did he not keep his distance from the election of the new comptroller?

A senior Likud source explained: "In 2005, the Sharon government took no position [in the election of the state comptroller]. MK Reuven Rivlin brought in Judge Micha Lindenstrauss, who turned out to be a major troublemaker. Netanyahu learned the lesson: If you don't show interest, everything becomes random. And when it's random, you lose control. Therefore, from the moment he decided on Shapira he had to go all-out for him, because if the other candidate were to be elected, heaven forbid, he would not forget. By the same token, Netanyahu can hope and expect that the candidate who was elected with his support and aid will not forget, either."

It was reported in the past that Shapira met with Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, in the Prime Minister's Residence. Shapira also met with the leaders of most of the parties in the Knesset and with influential MKs. He told Labor MKs that he had been a member of the party's Young Guard together with Uzi Baram, a former cabinet minister. He reminded Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz that they shared a joint military past. To others he remarked that serious review "begins at home." Who wouldn't give his eye teeth to know what he said to the premier and his spouse?

Once elected, though, Shapira owes nothing to anyone. He has one seven-year term. When it ends, he will be 74. The motives of Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman and Eli Yishai for supporting him are no longer relevant.

Netanyahu wants a toothless comptroller, weak and weakened public supervision and a scared judiciary. That's why he chose his confidant Yaakov Neeman as justice minister and also why he chose white-collar attorney Yehuda Weinstein as attorney general. There are some that claim the new civil service commissioner, Moshe Dayan, who was chosen a year ago despite his lack of qualifications and suitability for the job, had an indirect connection to a veteran Netanyahu donor.

It's for the same reason that Netanyahu backed the "Grunis law," which was aimed at electing a "conservative" judge to replace outgoing Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch. That didn't work out as the premier intended. Justice Asher Grunis was the one who rejected the state's request to postpone the evacuation of the Ulpana neighborhood in the Beit El settlement until the end of time. He handed down a similar judgment in the Migron outpost case.

And this week MK Uri Ariel (National Union ) was elected chairman of the State Control Committee. The view in political circles is that he was parachuted into that post. In fact, he is more an appointment of coalition chairman MK Zeev Elkin than of Netanyahu. Ariel comes from a party that will never belong to any coalition. He has nothing to look forward to.

Remembering Kadima

It's hard to refrain from two comments about Kadima. Remember them? At the beginning of the week, we were informed that the party's new MK, Yuval Zellner, had submitted a bill for the annulment of the "Mofaz law," which Likud sponsored two years ago. The law stipulates that a split in a faction will be possible with only seven MKs, and not, as before, with a minimum of one-third of the members. The aim was to make it easier for Kadima MKs to cross the lines to Likud.

It didn't help. Now, Netanyahu and Mofaz were hoping to turn the clock back. Rookie Zellner was chosen for the mission. Kadima faction chairwoman Itzik learned of the move from the media. She called Mofaz to ask what was going on. He mumbled that he hadn't known. In any event, she will apparently be appointed a minister soon.

On Wednesday, Labor MK Isaac Herzog submitted a bill forbidding the exclusion of women. The bill stipulated that anyone trying to exclude women in a public space will face a fine and three years in prison. Herzog was ready to coordinate the bill with the government - but the government objected. Fifteen MKs voted in favor of the bill, 26 against, mainly from Shas and United Torah Judaism, with a smattering from Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu.

For their part, most Kadima MKs, who in the past had foamed at the mouth against the phenomenon of women's exclusion, fled the chamber. Only three flouted discipline and voted in favor of the bill: Yoel Hasson, Robert Tiviaev and Nino Abesadze. (That same group is so wretched that it was event able to recruit seven MKs to take advantage of the "Mofaz law" before it was annulled, so that they could all leave Kadima to create a new faction. )

A senior figure in the Labor Party this week recalled conversations he had with Ehud Barak after the latter was elected party chairman in 2007. Barak had a fantasy. He used to say, "We will swallow up Kadima." To illustrate, he would open his mouth wide, close it and say, "Yummy!" Kadima was indeed swallowed, but by Likud. And now Barak is in the same precarious place.

The coming collision

The bill now taking shape in the committee headed by Kadima MK Yohanan Plesner, to draft the ultra-Orthodox and the Arabs, will pose a serious dilemma for MK Yaakov Litzman and the four other members of the United Torah Judaism faction: Do they oppose it and remain in the coalition - or leave in a huff? It's hard to imagine a formula that will satisfy both them and Kadima, Yizrael Beiteinu, Atzmaut and parts of Likud. Someone will have to yield.

"Not us," says Litzman. "There will not be a situation in which someone who wants to study [Torah] will not be able to. That's a consensus opinion for us."

But what about the prime minister?

Litzman: "I don't see Netanyahu burning his bridges over this. He spoke to us at 4:30 A.M. on the night of the upheaval [when he decided to bring Kadima into the coalition instead of moving up the general election]. I asked him if Kadima was coming in instead of us, and he said no. Let him find a solution."

Are you aware that he apparently said the opposite to Mofaz?

"I am aware of all kinds of things. There are all kinds of formulas regarding the [replacement for the] Tal law [struck down by the Supreme Court]. Not everything they may want to pass will cause us to leave, but we also will not be able to stay in every case."

Why should Netanyahu care about engaging you head-on? He will still have a huge coalition even without you. Your departure could win him points in some quarters.

"I don't recommend that he start up with us. He learned that it's not worthwhile. [Ariel] Sharon left us out of the coalition and then brought us in. Ehud Barak got entangled with us over transporting something on Shabbat eve, and we saw how that ended. We are convenient partners in governments, because we don't intervene in foreign and defense affairs and because we don't want a place in the security cabinet."

But today the public discourse is about evading the draft.

"If you are talking about evasion, the fact is that evasion among the secular public is four or five times what it is among the Haredi public."

Litzman is waiting for July, when MK Plesner will submit the bill devised by his committee to the government. Mofaz is urging Plesner to go all the way. The collision is inevitable. The question is how powerful it will be - and who will end up being discarded on the side of the road.