Kahlon’s Smile Risks Becoming the Symbol of Israel's Apartheid

The finance minister’s support for the nation-state bill will distort the meaning of his party’s name, transforming “Kulanu” (all of us) to “All of us except the Arabs”

Moshe Kahlon, Kulanu party leader, greets his supporters  in the city of Tel Aviv, Wednesday, March 18, 2015

If Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon isn’t careful, his lovely smile revealing his glistening white teeth, which has become his trademark, is likely to become the symbol of Jewish supremacy.

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Contrary to what political advisers claim, not everything is subject to being “manufactured.” Just ask Netta Barzilai. Can the Israeli winner of this year’s Eurovision song contest prevent the fact that the video clip of her song “Toy” will always be associated in disgrace with the slaughter on the Gaza border during that period? That’s exactly what is likely to happen to Kahlon if the proposed nation-state bill, which legalizes Jewish supremacy and Arab inferiority, passes thanks to him.

Kahlon is walking a thin line. He sees himself as the future leader of Likud and is trying to withstand the wave of ultranationalism on which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the prince of the ultranationalist high tide and the depths of racism, is deftly surfing. It probably warms the prime minister’s heart to see Kahlon betraying those same exalted values about which Kahlon spoke when he formed his Kulanu party. It probably gives Netanyahu great pleasure to see Kahlon losing his independence, toeing the line like a rank-and-file Likudnik.

Nor is the Knesset opposition making Kahlon’s life easy. The finance minister has to sustain much of the criticism that has been directed at the government since its formation. But there’s something unfair in the fact that Kulanu, a centrist party that has always tried to distance itself from confrontation and to promote a social agenda, is being forced to deal with angry calls for it to leave the government and to bring it down. People who didn’t vote for Kahlon have demanded that he resign in their name. Will they vote for him in the next election if he brings down the government “for them”?

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That’s unfair, just as it’s unfair that Barzilai’s song is identified with the killing of civilians from Gaza. But that’s how it is. There’s nobody to turn to except Kahlon. The entire opposition has been pulled far to the right, and it doesn’t look like its members have enough strength to row (back) to a safe democratic shore. Whom can the opposition turn to?

The critics on the left who claim that the nation-state bill reflects reality — destroying the illusion of democracy and equality practiced in Israel (certainly within the Green Line) — are correct. If there is any hope during this bad period, it’s that only when Israelis are longer able to boast about the justice of their laws when racism and discrimination are running rampant, only when Israelis are unable to convince the world and themselves that the regime in Israel is democratic — because the truth will be in black and white on the statute books — that they will demand the elimination of discrimination and the establishment of just government.

But none of those critics would go so far as calling on opponents of the law to vote for it. Criticism is important, but the opposition must position itself between de facto and de jure realities — that same space that the settler-annexationist-ultranationalist right is trying to constrict — and prevent them becoming one and the same.

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The gap between reality and the law embodies not only the illusion that Israel is still a democracy that practices equality but also the hope that some day it will really do so. If the Knesset finds the political strength to prevent the extreme right from carrying out its evil ultranationalist plans, that would be an achievement for it. And such an achievement would for the first time signal a new ideological boundary, changing the political map.

There is a reason why Netanyahu has been steamrolling the coalition recently. It’s important for him that he go on a strict ideological diet before the summer Knesset recess, to show off the extreme right-wing contours of the government he heads and, most importantly, to fit into his election suit.

But how far to the right is Kahlon willing to sink? Is he willing to take the risk that when people the world over think of Israeli apartheid, they will picture Kahlon smiling ear to ear? The finance minister’s support for the law will stand out in light of his actual ideological opposition to it. With one vote, he will distort the meaning of his party’s name, transforming “Kulanu” (all of us) to “All of us except the Arabs.”