Paragon of Ministerial Virtue

Benjamin Netanyahu has exhorted his ministers to 'be Kahlons,' and now he needs his party colleague more than ever. But too much Moshe Kahlon-ness could finish him.

On Tuesday morning, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gathered frowning associates and amused journalists and tried to sell his tremendous real-estate revolution. Not present was Communications and Social Affairs Minister Moshe Kahlon, whom the prime minister recently held up as a paragon of ministerial virtue and exhorted all the ministers to "be Kahlons."

And what was Kahlon doing while Netanyahu was giving his pitch? He was busy with matters of communications and welfare. He lowered broadband prices and also returned the teachers at the Migdal Ohr institutes for the blind to their jobs. He sorted out the conflict between the Social Affairs Ministry and the Rashi Foundation, as the ministry committed to provide funding and take responsibility for the teachers.

Moshe Kahlon (Eyal Toueg)
Eyal Toueg

Very politely, Kahlon refused to be interviewed and noted that he is not going to talk about the ongoing housing protest. I am not the housing minister, he said. Thank you.

He's also not finance minister. Nor does he seem all that interested in becoming finance minister, despite the rumors this week that Netanyahu was firing Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz and appointing Kahlon in his stead. And even though it is pretty clear that most people have absolutely no interest in who the finance minister is and are blaming Netanyahu alone, the rumor about Steinitz's dismissal is refusing to die.

Kahlon, a smiley sort of fellow in any case, seems happy with his lot. As communications minister, he has already proved that the tycoons don't scare him, cutting cellular interconnect fees by an incredible 70 percent. While he has been social affairs minister for only a few months, it is already clear that he is planning huge changes: hot meals for children over the summer break, a larger budget for heating certain institutions in the winter months in the north despite the Finance Ministry's protests, and more. The style of his predecessor, Isaac Herzog, who invested energy and money in supporting food-distribution charities and research related to "nutrition security," will be forgotten fast.

It is doubtful that Netanyahu really meant it when he urged all his ministers to "be Kahlons." If Kahlon himself becomes a bit more Kahlon, Netanyahu is liable to find himself in a jam. The young Likudnik from Givat Olga, with a somewhat jumbled higher education in political science, history and law, is working against Netanyahu's sacred principles. He believes society cannot be abandoned to the so-called free market, which is in practice undisciplined and centralized. Moreover, he does not think the state should merely "supervise"; he believes the state has to be involved. It has to do things itself.

I'm not a socialist, he says. I simply think the state has to be responsible for its citizens. In this spirit, when he saw he would not be able to find any private organization that could take on what he calls "the great warship" of the cellular market, he decided the state would have to create competition.

Resounding silence

This week Kahlon's silence resounded from one end of Rothschild Boulevard to the other, but had he opened his mouth, it is doubtful he would have expressed enthusiasm for selling off land or privatizing the Israel Lands Administration. On the contrary: He presumably would have proposed steps that Netanyahu and his associates consider anathema - from a rent freeze to renewed public construction, expanded eligibility for subsidies and government-subsidized mortgages.

But Kahlon is keeping silent, and he knows what he is doing. In his delicate, complex relationship with Netanyahu, he can whisper suggestions into the prime minister's ear, but he cannot utter them out loud. Netanyahu needs his loyalty now more than ever. The housing protest - which is evoking traditional leftist language and demanding a welfare state, limits to privatization, a fair distribution of resources and justice instead of charity - is appealing to Likud voters just as much as Kadima, Meretz and Labor voters.

Netanyahu understands this. He is feeling the anger. He knows (for the second time ) that from a proud, upright leader who received a standing ovation in Congress, he has become the bane of a large public. He may believe this is reversible. But he also knows that alone, without Kahlon, he will not be able to repair the damage.

The power in Kahlon's hands could intoxicate him. He could, for example, suggest that the premier unveil a number of far-reaching measures similar in spirit to what he is doing at his two ministries, and come out the darling of the media and the populace. He could even give Netanyahu an escape hatch. He could tell Netanyahu: "Say I pressured you." Which would give him even more points.

His associates claim that Netanyahu, too, could benefit from such a move. Although for him it would be like forcing an ultra-Orthodox extremist to eat pork, his fellow Likudiks would be pleased he has conceded a bit on his neoliberal religious principles "for the sake of the nation."

But Kahlon is not only keeping silent. He is also being cautious. He knows very well that the prime minister is not operating in a vacuum. Ever since Netanyahu marketed himself as Israel's most brilliant finance minister ever, whose revolutionary reforms saved the country from a deep crisis and led it to tremendous growth, every retreat from his policy has cost him dearly. He can take the criticism from home, but he can't afford to lose the support of the American right, the neoconservatives and the Tea Partyers. There is no saying how they would react if their "Milton Friedman golden boy" were to disappoint them.

In a few interviews he gave shortly before the protest erupted, Kahlon related that his mother, who is angry that food prices have gone up, solemnly informed him that in the next elections the Likud would not win. Here is another reason he is restraining himself, and instead of coming off as a social messiah, he is choosing to help Netanyahu quietly.

After all, the Likud primaries - where he will face off against Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar, Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom and other dear friends who are already polishing their swords - do not look like a cakewalk for him. Certainly not in the context of the great things he is planning to accomplish in his two ministries. If Netanyahu falls, the entire Likud will almost certainly come tumbling after him. But if Netanyahu is extricated from his current pickle and the government remains in power, then Kahlon has a lot of work.

In the long run, he is better off building himself up in this way. The question is what will happen if Kahlon responds to his boss' emotional call, and really does become a total Kahlon - that is, if he succeeds, with his diligence and his stubborn faith in the state's centrality, in profoundly changing Netanyahu's system.

The men will face a rough test in the next few days, at the end of which either Kahlon will be less Kahlon or Netanyahu himself will be more Kahlon.