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MOSHE KAHLON - ISRAEL'S FUTURE PRIME MINISTER?

Moshe Kahlon

 Could Moshe Kahlon, who is barely known outside of Israel, become a future prime minister? Who knows? It's a long shot, but it's not out of the realm of possibility. The Likud Cabinet minister achieved immense popularity and prestige in the former Netanyahu government, but then dropped a bombshell by refusing to run in the last election in January 2013. At the time, Kahlon turned down the pleas of the Likud and Netanyahu, saying he wanted some time off from politics. After attending an advanced course at Harvard for foreign administrators, Kahlon has returned to Israel and to Israeli politics. The affable and soft Kahlon has now sounded a political war cry that is likely to shake up the next election campaign when it comes around. If Kahlon does decide to make a serious bid to run for the premiership, it will be the first time a Mizrachi Jew has done so, and that could have an important impact on traditional voting patterns in Israel. (Mizrachi Jews hail from Middle East countries, and Ashkenazi Jews are from Europe or Americas). 

Kahlon (L) and Netanyahu (R)

  It's still early days, but Moshe Kahlon is bent on leading a major shake-up in Israeli politics in both social and foreign policy. That is the message from the 54-year-old Likudnik who has returned from Harvard. Not only that, he declares that he must be number one if he is to succeed. Now Kahlon is not just your run-of-the-mill Likud politician, who is shooting off continually about one thing or another, from the Kerry mission to bombing Iran. Serving as Communications Minister in the former Netanyahu government, he gained a national reputation for talking softly and wielding a big stick when he took on the powerful cell phone conglomerates, which had been price gouging Israeli consumers for years. They said it couldn't be done, but Kahlon did it. He slashed the exorbitant telephone bills. His popularity and prestige soared immediately. Overnight he became Netanyahu's knight in shining armor, and the PM even quipped to his cabinet ministers: "I want you all to be Kahlons!" But then on the eve of the election campaign, the most popular Likud cabinet minister announced he would remain in the party but was taking a time-out from politics. The country was dumbstruck and rumors swirled around the meteoric politician who was on the verge of cashing in on his great success. Maybe Kahlon was seriously ill; maybe a scandal was about to break in his private life! But no, what you saw was what you got. It has now transpired that Kahlon was deeply disturbed about the future of Israel and where his Likud party has been taking it, primarily in domestic policy. 

Born in Israel, he is one of seven sons of a poor Jewish Moroccan family...he grew up in the rundown Mizrachi quarter...

 In order to understand where Kahlon is going, it is necessary to see where he has come from. Born in Israel, he is one of seven sons of a poor Jewish Moroccan family who arrived in Israel after the founding of the state in 1948. He grew up in the rundown Mizrachi quarter of Givat Olga in central Israel, and that experience imbued him with a strong social conscience and the drive to work for greater equality in Israeli society. In an interview with the Yediot Ahronot newspaper, Kahlon related how he had been inspired by the legendary Likud leader Menachem Begin, an Ashkenazi, who once came to Givat Olga and declared fervently: "We are all brothers!" This dramatic event changed his life, spurring on the 17-year-old to embark on a political career in Begin's Likud party. 

 But Kahlon feels strongly that in the recent five years of Likud governments (headed by Netanyahu), the party has abandoned Begin's social welfare policies and concern for narrowing the economic and educational gaps between the better-off and poorer Israelis. Instead the government has focused too much on foreign affairs and defense, and the radical Right has actually taken over the party. (Although Prime Minister Netanyahu has said he supports the two state solution, nearly all of his MKs are opposed to it). The new protagonist in Israeli politics has identified the burning issues that he intends to tackle: soaring housing prices, the high cost of living (particularly food prices), and better educational opportunities for low income earners as well as higher paychecks. Kahlon contends these are not pie-in-the-sky fantasies - the problem is that domestic decision-making is still stymied by practices and thinking of the 50's. 

  Foreign affairs & defense... 
Kahlon is vague on foreign affairs and defense. He defines himself as Center-Right

 

 But if the Likud rebel-with-a-cause has a detailed program for domestic policy, Kahlon is vague on foreign affairs and defense. He defines himself as Center-Right.

 

  • First the Palestinian issue: "We must give the Kerry peace mission every chance to the very end. Israel should thank Kerry and preserve good relations with the U.S. There is a need for a different approach - to think outside the box. The greatest problem is a lack of credibility between Israel and the Palestinians. Look how the U.S. broke the freeze with China through Ping-Pong games. We should seek more points of contact with the Palestinians through sport, even cooking contests, student exchanges, and high-tech projects. I'm talking about peace emanating through cooperation. When I was Communications Minister, I tried to meet my Palestinian counter-part, but without success. Finally we did down in Haifa. I told him I knew he was from a refugee camp and grew up in a family of eight brothers, adding that I also came from a poor family of seven brothers and therefore we had something in common. We both knew what happens in such a family and what it means to make certain that enough food remains on the table for our little brother. This broke the ice and led to full cooperation. People that don't believe in one another cannot agree on anything, therefore, I will not discuss such issues as Jerusalem and the right of return. It's premature to talk about them before there's credibility.”
  • But what about exchanging the settlement blocs for land swaps? "It's unrealistic."
  • Palestinian recognition of the Jewish state? "Absolutely, it is important."
  • Has the Netanyahu government's policy of developing West Bank settlements been at the expense of improving the lot of low income Israelis? Kahlon rejected this claim, saying there would be sufficient funding for both if the government administered the economy more efficiently. 
We should seek more" points of contact with the Palestinians through sport, even cooking contests, student exchanges, and high-tech projects. I'm talking about peace emanating through cooperation."

 

 IsraCast assessment: There will be strong support for Kahlon's stress on improving the lot of lower-middle class and poor Israelis. This cuts across the political divide and will fall favorably on the ears of the vast majority of Israelis, be they Left, Right, or Center. Recent opinion polls indicated if elections were held tomorrow, a new Kahlon party would garner ten to thirteen seats in the 120-member Knesset. This is on the basis of his socialist approach in defending the have-nots against the tycoons. But 'Therein lies the rub'. If Kahlon wishes to become prime minister he must also craft a foreign policy that will be palatable to both Left and Right wing voters. It is a peculiarity of Israeli politics that the Likud has adopted a capitalistic economic policy, yet it draws much of its support from low-income earners, a majority of them Mizrachi Jews. Obviously, this is in contrast to low-income earners in Britain or the U.S. who vote Labor or Democratic rather than Conservative or Republican. In other words, Mizrachi voters, who would be expected to favor a socialist party such as Labor, give more weight to foreign affairs and defense. So if Kahlon wants to draw more substantial numbers of voters, he faces a difficult task of presenting his foreign policy thinking, and this explains why he has so far skirted the thorny question. Large numbers of Israeli voters will not support a candidate who cannot convince them he can cope with the Palestinians or Iran. Meanwhile, he has been quietly meeting with economic and strategic experts with the aim of drafting both his future platform and possible colleagues, if he decides to form a new party. His second option would be to join forces with other politicians or to return to the Likud fold on the understanding that he would both formulate and implement economic policy. Finally in this day and age, it is essential for a serious candidate to project a charismatic and confident persona on TV - Kahlon has yet to appear in hard-hitting TV interviews, and it remains to be seen just how he will come across on the screen. 

 

 

 David Essing

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Editor Rivki Matan

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