Kulanu leader Moshe Kahlon.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Assuming no big surprises come out of Tuesday’s election—which in Israeli politics is a huge assumption—Moshe Kahlon is likely to be Israel’s next finance minister, even if his party does not pull in a large number of mandates.
According to the most recent polls, both the right and left blocs fall short of the 61 seats needed to form a coalition. By sticking to the center, Kahlon has put himself in the position to be wooed by both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Likud and MK Isaac Herzog of the Zionist Union when the polls close.
Netanyahu already announced that he would offer Kahlon the finance portfolio, one of the most powerful ministries in the government. Herzog did not yet reciprocate, but unless he pulls out a significant lead over Netanyahu, he will have to give Kahlon a good incentive to recommend him to form the next coalition.
How did Kahlon, whose party is expected to get just eight or nine mandates, pull off such a feat?
Though Kahlon’s campaign has admirably appealed to people living in country’s periphery, women and minorities, it never quite caught fire. He managed to bring former Ambassador Michael Oren and former general of OC Southern Command Yoav Gallant onto his list, but failed to attract many other stars. The names on the Kulanu list all have admirable resumes, but little name recognition. The candidates’ experience on municipal politics was intended to pull support from their various locales, but their accomplishments failed to elicit excitement from voters nationally. Few had heard of Tsega Melako, the Ethiopian Israeli radio host he picked as his third but was disqualified from running by the Central Election Committee, before or since her brief stint on the Kulanu list.
What saved Kahlon has been his political strategy of sticking squarely to the center and doggedly focusing on socio-economic issues. He moderated his once-hawkish stance on the Palestinian issue and even came out in favor of same-sex marriage, but spoke of these issues infrequently.
Throughout his campaign, whose viral videos never managed to quite go viral, he resisted the temptation to pull voters from the left or right by endorsing a prime ministerial candidate, as Lapid did for Herzog. When Tzipi Livni announced she would drop her demand for a rotating premiership, Kahlon responded that rotations were irrelevant to the cost of housing.
But he had no problem lashing out at anyone who criticized him.
Kahlon picked short fights with both Herzog and with Netanyahu, whose finance ministry promise he dismissed (Netanyahu reneged on his 2013 promise to put Kahlon in the construction ministry). He scoffed at the Zionist Union’s Treasury candidate Manuel Trajtenberg and endlessly derided Lapid, his centrist rival and would-be predecessor, as a failed finance minister.
But Kahlon generally kept from commenting on issues outside the economic realm, even when it was politically tempting.
In the last election, the newcomer promising hope and change was rival Yair Lapid, whose Yesh Atid party was polling at around 12 seats before jumping to 19 on election day, partly because voters wanted to give the new guy a chance. Kahlon may yet get a boost from his newcomer status, but he never managed to reach Lapid’s place in the polls.
Kahlon’s meager showing thus far has been surprising. He produced a credible platforms with the help of serious thinkers. His central accomplishment, reforming the cellular market, has lowered Israelis’ monthly expenses by a notable chunk. He spoke repeatedly about housing, finance, and cost of living in an election that voters say is all about economic issues. Perhaps keeping voters with strong preferences for who their prime minister will be in the dark kept him from flourishing.
Ultimately, where Kahlon’s good nature, Cheshire Cat grin and technocratic focus on the issues failed to boost his poll numbers, his insistence on keeping his cards close to his chest and staying mum about who he would support to lead the country have put him in a powerful position for the next government.