Smiling All the Way to the Top

Moshe Kahlon is one of three young ministers who have reached the upper levels of Likud in recent years; he says he wants to be the country's 'first social-minded finance minister,' but perhaps he's setting his sights even higher?

At the cabinet meeting on Sunday, the ministers discussed the cottage cheese issue, until Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had had his fill: "Look at how many problems there were in the media market, and [Communications] Minister [Moshe] Kahlon solved them all. All of you should be Kahlons, too - find solutions!"

kahlon - Amos Biderman - June 24 2011
Amos Biderman

Kahlon, who is also social affairs minister, smiled his trademark bashful smile. His colleagues have learned that behind this smile lurk fierce ambition, original thinking, political cunning, and also various skills and successes. If Netanyahu forms the next government as well, the top people in the Likud know Moshe Kahlon will demand one of the three senior portfolios: Indeed, it is not out of the question to assume he will be at the top of the party slate for the 19th Knesset and furthermore, at the moment, his appointment as the next finance minister looks like a reasonable bet.

"I intend to be the first social-minded finance minister," he likes to tell his confidantes. "I will do things no one has done. My dream is to make a change in the state's priorities. I am not afraid to touch things none of the previous ministers have touched. I am not afraid to deal with issues everyone has fled from. I am not afraid to put my hand in the fire. I have proved this at the Communications Ministry. There is a big problem in the Israeli economy - it's called concentration. This has to be dealt with."

Kahlon has been a ministerial aide, a Knesset member and during the past two years a minister. "I don't like to attract fire," he says in private conversations. "I prefer to work below the radar, not in its sights."

He succeeded in claiming the additional portfolio of social affairs for himself - after Isaac Herzog of the Labor Party quit the government - first as acting minister and then permanently. The Likud has five ministers without portfolio. It did not occur to Netanyahu to give the social affairs portfolio to any of them. In return, or perhaps not, Kahlon promised to support whatever diplomatic plan Netanyahu proposes and to enlist support for him in the party's central committee (which the minister chairs ), if necessary. In the meantime there is no diplomatic plan visible on the horizon, and Kahlon can devote all his time to his two important portfolios.

On Tuesday he was awarded an honorary degree from Netanya Academic College, along with former Mossad chief Meir Dagan. As part of his Kahlonic modesty, on the following day he told his friends: "I was embarrassed by this. What are they giving me publicity for? For having done what I have to do?" And when he attacked the regime of tycoons in the cellular and media markets here, and forced them to lower prices, cancel exit fees and in general take their long arm out of the consumer's pocket - he found it hard to understand the meaning of the pats on the back he got.

Kahlon is one of the trio of young ministers who have conquered the upper levels of Likud in recent years. The other two are Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar and Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan. In the future, after Netanyahu, Sa'ar will vie for chairmanship of the Likud and for the position of prime minister. It appears his way to the leadership is paved. Erdan is planning a similar trajectory, after Sa'ar.

"No, I am not going to be prime minister," says Kahlon. "Really not. That's too serious. Not everyone who has reformed the cell-phone market can become prime minister. As long as I am in politics I will remain in the economic-social realm."

His colleagues at the top of the party suspect he is trying to lull them to sleep. Kahlon hears this theory and smiles his pleasant, soothing smile.

Sludge control

This week the Knesset celebrated Environment Day. The Knesset Interior and Environment Committee prepared to greet Minister Erdan, who brought along a file of regulations intended to regularize the issue of the flow of sludge and sewage into the sea. A law on this matter was passed in 2005, but the regulations that are supposed to define it, and also to impose severe fines on polluters, have been delayed until now because of opposition from the industry and the associations of cities.

Erdan thought he would do what his predecessors during the past six years did not do, and get the regulations passed in the committee. When he entered the committee room on Tuesday morning, he found Arnon Giladi, the head of Shafdan, the Dan region environmental quality infrastructures association. Giladi is also a major activist in the Tel Aviv Likud branch. Knesset members make pilgrimages to him.

peretz - Alon Ron - June 24 2011
Alon Ron

Erdan expected to meet Giladi at the meeting, but did not expect such a considerable presence of MKs from his own party, legislators Zeev Elkin (chairman of the Likud faction and the coalition ), Yariv Levin, Danny Danon and Zion Pinyan. The four Likud MKs are acting together with Giladi to thwart the regulations, on the grounds that the economic damage to the association will ultimately hurt residents and spur an increase in municipal taxes.

The committee members from the opposition, among them MKs Eitan Cabel (Labor ), Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz ), Jacob Edery (Kadima ) and Dov Khenin (Hadash ), are in fact trying to help the minister from the Likud who, as one of them said, looked like a plucked chicken. At one stage Cabel shouted at Elkin: "It's undignified, what you people are doing to your own minister! How much is it possible to humiliate him? Think about the way you look - you're damaging us, the committee, the Knesset."

At the head of the table, to the right of committee chairman MK Amnon Cohen from Shas, sat Erdan, who saw how a year's work was about to go down the drain. At the other end of the table sat Giladi, pulling the strings of the Likud MKs.

Elkin and his colleagues demanded of the chairman that he call for a vote. Together with other colleagues from the opposition, they had a majority against the regulations. Moments before the latter were washed down the sewer, Cabel decided to formulate a compromise, which was accepted, whereby the regulations were approved in an abridged version. "Apparently this summer too I will be taking my children to the beach to learn how to swim in pee-pee and doo-doo," grumbled Cabel.

Erdan refused to comment on this. Elkin wished to make it clear: He and his Likud colleagues acted in a practical way for the benefit of the inhabitants of the Dan region, whose pockets would have been hurt by swift approval of the regulations because of increased water and sewage taxes. Two MKs from Kadima also supported us, he added.

'Esprit de corps'

Until not long ago, Labor MK Amir Peretz had a big blot on his record because of a hasty war, and a devastating report on that war. Today, he is the champion voter-registrar for his party and is considered to have pretty good chances in the race for its leadership. Indeed, there is nothing Peretz loves more and knows how to do better than signing up voters: He went everywhere in person, handed out forms to activists, dispatched them on missions and was waiting for them when they came back. He says his registration was "clean"; the trauma of the irregularities that emerged during the "carton registration" (the nickname attached to it by former party chairman Ehud Barak ) in 2005, scared him. But now, as after every party registration drive, accusations of forgeries are again being heard.

"Not in my camp," declares Peretz. "People say to me: We've been carrying the pain around with us for four years. How did you survive? How did you manage? They slaughtered us. An entire country attacked you. And I say to them: What are you talking about? This was my personal pain. Not yours. No, they say to me. They hurt us all.

"Someone in Shlomi said to me: For four years I've been going around feeling strangled because of what they did to you. I felt they were trampling not only you but also my own honor, and my parents' honor."

Do you think these accusations have an ethnic tinge to them?

Peretz: "No. This is not a question of ethnicity ... But these are my supporters. They need esprit de corps. A sense of identification. During this whole period, when I was subjected to so many attacks and so much criticism, they suffered more than I did. They went into shelters and waited for me to arrive."

It's interesting to note that Aryeh Deri, who this week managed to make headlines after saying what he had already said many times during the past two years - that he intends to make a political comeback - talks about his supporters in exactly the same way.

"The best thing that has happened to me," says Peretz, "is that Barak replaced me as defense minister. He came as a savior and look where he is today. Were it not for the whole story about appointing the chief of staff, who would have even remembered that I appointed Gabi Ashkenazi?

"In these elections I am going to complete the revolution. I am telling my people: Treat the day of the primaries, September 12, like your wedding day. A wedding day is something you never forget, and it's the day we are going to get married again to the public, to our dreams and our hopes."