Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu suffered a political blow on Sunday when his Likud Party’s most popular minister, Moshe Kahlon, announced that he intended to “take a break from politics” and not run for the next Knesset, hours after the cabinet approved a proposal calling for elections to be held in 100 days, on January 22.

The news, which spread through the Likud rumor mill on Sunday, surprised politicians and activists in the party because Kahlon, 51, was considered the favorite to win the top slot after Netanyahu on the Likud’s candidates list in next month’s party primary. As Likud’s No. 2, he could have demanded his dream job, finance minister.

The Jerusalem Post
polls in December 2010 and July 2011 that asked which ministers people view favorably found that Kahlon, who led reforms that drastically cut prices for cellular phone service, was the most popular minister in the cabinet. Taking advantage of his popularity, Netanyahu gave Kahlon the Welfare and Social Services portfolio in addition to the Communications Ministry, and told other ministers “to be Kahlons.”

No immediate reason was given for Kahlon’s departure but Likud sources said that behind the scenes, Netanyahu had frequently sparred with Kahlon, who chairs the Likud central committee and was the only Likud minister opposed to the most recent round of budget cuts. Kahlon had grown closer recently to Netanyahu’s nemesis in Likud, Moshe Feiglin, and appointed Feiglin’s top deputy Michael Fuah to a top political job.

According to one theory, Kahlon’s departure is a political move meant to obtain a commitment from Netanyahu to appoint him finance minister rather than Netanyahu’s longtime ally Yuval Steinitz, who currently holds the post. But a source who spoke to Kahlon said he always intended to enter politics temporarily and leave on top.

“I wasn’t born as a minister, and I won’t die a minister,” Kahlon was fond of saying.

Ministers call upon Kahlon to reconsider

Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan and Culture and Sport Minister Limor Livnat issued statements calling upon Kahlon to reconsider his decision.

Netanyahu was quoted as saying in closed conversations that he believed he could persuade Kahlon to cancel his departure, which could harm the prime minister’s effort to present himself as strong on both security and socioeconomic issues.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Monday expressed regret over Kahlon's decision, describing the move as "a loss."

In an interview with Israel Radio, Barak described Kahlon as a "rare" type of politician and a genuine person.

The defense minister predicted that if Kahlon was confident that in the next Knesset he would receive the finance portfolio, he would stay in politics.  

Meanwhile, Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar said that he intended to speak to Kahlon, and expressed hope that he would change his mind about resigning from politics, Israel Radio reported.

Sa'ar stressed that Kahlon is an admired and succesful minister, both in and out of Likud. "I know how important the Likud is to Kahlon, and I'm positive that he will find a way to support it."

The education minister predicted that there will be people who will try to exploit Kahlon's decision to harm the Likud, but he said that any such attempt will not succeed.

Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich interpreted the move was a sign of the Likud party's transformation.

"He was an excellent minister whose heart is in the right place and who is deeply committed to the entire Israeli public, not just to the handful of wealthy, whom he did not hesitate to fight when needed," Yacimovich said of the Likud MK.

"This underscores the transformation of the Likud - which was supposed to be a party for that serves the nation - to a capitalist party whose leaders abuse its citizens," she added

Yacimovich called on voters who were still undecided on whether to vote for Netanyahu, to vote for her instead. "Do not continue the regular voting pattern," she urged. She said that voters should choose a fair economy and a just society that serves the general public and is responsive to its needs.   

PM boosted by Dichter's move to Likud

Netanyahu received a boost on the security end on Sunday when Home Front Defense Minister Avi Dichter announced that he would run for the next Knesset with the Likud, though he was previously an MK with Kadima.

“I fought shoulder to shoulder with Bibi [Netanyahu] in the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit when we were 20, and I will fight with Bibi shoulder to shoulder in Likud now that we are 60,” Dichter said.

The upcoming election colored Netanyahu’s comments at the weekly cabinet meeting held on Sunday morning.

Referring to his government’s economic achievements, the prime minister took the opportunity of marking the UN-designated International Day of Older Persons to say that a proposal will be submitted to the cabinet to promote employment for senior citizens. He used that as jumping off point to mention his job-creation record over the past four years.

“I believe that a job is the most social thing there is for people of all ages, and I call your attention to the fact that over the past four years we have added over 300,000 jobs – an all-time record – and this was during a global economic crisis that has not only toppled economies, but has increased unemployment rates around the world,” he said, with the elections clearly on his mind.

“Even during the three-month election period, we will continue to act responsibly in order to safeguard the economy and, most importantly, to maintain Israelis’ jobs and even add to them,” Netanyahu added.

As far as higher education was concerned, the prime minister said – in a further sign that the campaign was already in full swing – that he wanted to “say something” to the 300,000 students who would start the academic year in the coming days: “There is no government that has contributed more to higher education than this government.

Sources close to Netanyahu promised that there would be no maneuver to cancel the election in the middle of the night, as there was when the Knesset nearly dissolved itself in May.

The government bill to dissolve the Knesset will be brought to the Knesset House Committee on Monday morning, where MKs will vote to waive the waiting period before a new bill is brought to its first plenum reading. The motion is expected to be easily approved by the Likud-controlled committee and the Knesset is expected to dissolve itself on Monday evening.

House Committee chairman Yariv Levin (Likud) called for other parties to behave responsibly and allow the Knesset to dissolve itself on Monday.

The Knesset winter session will open on Monday at 4 p.m. with a special meeting, as required by law, in which President Shimon Peres will be present and Netanyahu and opposition leader Shaul Mofaz (Kadima) will speak.

After the special meeting, voting on the bill to dissolve the Knesset will begin, and is expected to continue until late at night. After it is approved in its first reading, the bill will be brought back to the House Committee for preparation before it is put to a second and third (final) vote in the plenum.

Though the government-proposed bill sets the election on January 22, the date can be changed when it is brought to the House Committee after the first plenum reading.

Meanwhile, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid offered former IDF deputy chief of staff Maj.-Gen. (res.) Moshe Kaplinsky (pictured) the second spot on his party’s Knesset candidates list, Channel 2 reported on Sunday night.

Lapid’s spokeswoman would not answer any questions about the Yesh Atid list, which will be released in the next few days.

Other figures rumored to be in talks to join the new party include Rabbi Shai Piron, co-founder of the Tzohar national-religious rabbinical association; Itzik Shmuly, chairman of the National Union of Israeli Students and a leader of last summer’s social protests; Dr. Aliza Lavie, a communications lecturer at Bar-Ilan University and author of the religious-feminist book A Jewish Woman’s Prayer Book, Herzliya Mayor Yael German; and former Health Ministry director-general Eitan Hai-Am.

Kaplinsky, 55, was OC Central Command chief from 2002 to 2005 and deputy chief of staff from 2005 to 2007. He has been CEO of the Better Place Israel electric-vehicle infrastructure company since 2008.

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