Israel’s agenda-driven pundits are strict mono-measurers with no other political
yardstick but how any hullabaloo impacts on the Likud – or, more specifically,
on its headliner Binyamin Netanyahu. They cheer whatever damages the Likud or
Look at how the second coming of Shas’s Arye Deri’s
was greeted. Regardless of obligatory hand-wringing about Deri’s criminal record,
his comeback offered the Left an opportunity for undisguised gloating, owing to
the loudly trumpeted assumption that Deri is sure to bite into the Bibi’s
The curious case of Communications, Welfare and
Social Services Minister Moshe Kahlon was altogether a godsend allowing
propagandists to crow that the Likud no longer represents regular
When Kahlon announced his time-out, for whatever reason, it became
the leading news item both on air and on page one of the print media. It was as
if a shining star had fallen.
This demands a serious reality check. Is
Kahlon truly so central a figure, or was this deliberately skewed reporting
designed to ingrain the impression that an actual watershed event had just
crucially injured Netanyahu?
Anyone with a smidge of historical memory could be
forgiven for doubting that Kahlon was the Likud’s indispensable pivot and that
his absence from its Knesset slate would deal the party a critical blow. Those
still capable of remembering politics before Kahlon know that he’s a relative
newcomer whose unremarkable parliamentary debut occurred in 2003.
then, in 2006, a steep upswing in his fortunes took everyone by surprise –
Kahlon foremost. He was catapulted from near-anonymity to the Likud Knesset
primary’s No. 1 slot. That meant he was high on Bibi’s candidates list, a fact
which instantly resulted in Kahlon being lampooned mercilessly by the same
expedient experts who now insincerely bewail the hiatus he took.
this will make sense if we don’t recognize the elementary factor at play – the
consistently visceral loathing for Netanyahu. It’s not even pro forma
It’s non-specific, all-encompassing and virtually devoid
of coherent triggers. Netanyahu is reviled because he’s clearly the most viable
political alternative to Israel’s left-leaning establishment.
single-most formidable threat to its hegemony, he must be thoroughly and
unambiguously delegitimized. The last time this nation witnessed an electoral
slugfest – in 2009 – this antagonism spawned such supposed slurs as “Bibi is
still Bibi,” “the Bibi in him resurfaced,” “the inner-Bibi couldn’t be overcome”
and “the Bibi went to his head.”
There’s no point fishing for
explanations about what “the Bibi” meant, how Bibi failed to shed “the Bibi,”
and from what Bibi was expected to reform. It’s immaterial. The hazy yet
all-important insinuation was that “the Bibi” was somehow bad – a despicable
moral flaw, an inherent failing. By not specifying, the catchphrase copywriters
implied that this defect was patently obvious, an axiomatic indisputable
With vague slogans like “I don’t believe Bibi,” Kadima’s
spin-meisters managed during the campaign four years ago to accentuate the
This became the single choice. Bibi was painted as
the ogre, and Tzipi Livni became the hyped anti-Bibi bulwark.
came to shove, even Labor and Meretz stalwarts heeded the clarion call and voted
for Livni and Kadima just to “stop Bibi.”
Those who today clamor for Ehud
Olmert’s return to the political arena – his conviction for breach of trust and
assorted still-extant legal travails notwithstanding – resorted unabashedly to
smear tactics in 2009. Those who currently insist that Olmert’s court-verified
shady dealings are irrelevant and mustn’t figure in the campaign, aimed with
premeditated persistence to undermine Netanyahu’s reputation, credibility and
character via unverifiable innuendo, distortions, half-truths or even outright
Since the electoral upset of 1977 all campaigns were about socking
it to the Likud. In all campaigns where Netanyahu headed the Likud, he took the
brunt of the knocks and became a convenient focus for all anti-Likud
This is key in contextualizing the Kahlon episode. His ratings
on the media’s popularity-meter are contingent on his relationship with
Netanyahu. If Kahlon is seen as close to Netanyahu, then he is denigrated. If he
is perceived as pulling away, he is lauded.
This is what predetermined
the attitude to Kahlon both in 2006 and today. He was and still is used as a
whip with which to lash Netanyahu. Whereas now he is crowned an authentic folk
hero, it was deemed advantageous to turn Kahlon into a laughingstock when he
first ran with Netanyahu. Kahlon jokes became so much of a vogue in certain
circles that it was hard not to draw comparisons with the David Levy jokes of
It was once all the rage among the enlightened elites to
scoff at the upstart construction worker from Beit She’an with no academic
accomplishments but with that too-perfect hairdo, a dozen kids and enough
pomposity to rival any of Menachem Begin’s Polish mannerisms.
lowbrow David Levy jokes weren’t just in-crowd pleasantries. They were
everywhere, even collected in books that quickly climbed up the best-seller
They were inane and often recycled antiquated barbs aimed in
Israel’s earlier days at Mapai power-broker Yosef Almogi – a man renowned for his
linguistic clumsiness and lack of erudition. However, the anti-Levy versions
were cruder, inestimably more infantile and infinitely more undeserved. They
reflected more negatively on the intelligence of those who composed, circulated
and enjoyed them than on their butt.
After Levy withdrew from politics,
some of the wicked repertoire used to scorn him was redirected at Kahlon – the
backbencher who did too well to be received courteously by the knee-jerk
anti-Likud dispensers of conventional wisdom.
Kahlon, the son of
immigrants from Libya, cut a less striking figure than the charismatic Levy and
couldn’t match Levy’s oratorical flare and pathos, but there was lots else to
make jest of. Before his meteoric ascendency in the Likud ranks, Kahlon ran an
auto-accessories dealership. Previous to that he worked as a car
These humble beginnings sufficed to inspire lots of hilarity
from left field, where assorted salon socialists supposedly dedicate themselves
to the advancement of commoners just like him. Even more contemptuous chortles
emanated from the Kadima crowd, although it postured as heir to the Likud’s
appeal to non-Ashkenazim and to Labor’s more sanctimonious socioeconomic
A more appropriate reaction would be to envy the Likud for its
inherent democracy, which allows unknowns to rise overnight to prominence. The
likes of Levy or Kahlon couldn’t have made it years ago on the Left.
Nevertheless, Likud liberality isn’t the whole or sole explanation for Kahlon’s
The plain fact is that he benefited indirectly from Likud central
committee dynamics, the sort the media ritually loves to rip to
Kahlon was among the anti-Sharon “rebels,” steadfastly resisting
the political fleshpots dangled tantalizingly under his nose if he’d only
support disengagement from Gaza. Yet although Kahlon stayed faithful to the
platform which ushered him to the Knesset, he wasn’t a notable ideologue and not
in the vanguard of anti-disengagement battles.
That meant he wasn’t high
on the hit list of Trojan horses which Sharon and his sons left in the Likud
central committee after they had split the party.
Indeed Kahlon’s low
profile meant that he featured on no-hit list during the Likud’s 2006 Knesset
primary. There was no reason not to vote for him. He was that
Being inherently unobjectionable enabled Kahlon to pull
ahead even of many leading Likud lights who had held ministerial posts
pre-disengagement in the Sharon-led coalition and who thereby made themselves
exceedingly objectionable to diehard Herut torchbearers.
Most of these
ex-ministers excelled inordinately in equivocating. They failed to preempt
disengagement at the very outset, having grown too attached to their coveted
portfolios, which didn’t endear this self-seeking crew to Revisionist
Benefiting by default from the ruckus was lackluster Kahlon.
But why did that earmark him as the Left’s object of insipid satire? Doubtless
it’s the fact that Kahlon remained on the “wrong” political side – that which
this country’s opinion- molders despise.
“Wrong side” affiliation earned
Silvan Shalom’s halting English much derision during his stint as foreign
minister, whereas Kadima luminary Tzipi Livni’s considerably worse command of
the world’s lingua franca was obligingly overlooked when she later held the same
post. Compared to her, Silvan is the Bard of Avon, yet she generates an
assumption of excellence.
It’s the same bias that leads broadcasters to
consistently introduce Yossi Beilin as “Dr. Beilin,” while omitting Yuval
Of course there’s no evidence of an inextricable link
between degrees and common sense, but the spin about the Likud being the home of
bookless know-nothings is apparently effective. To make the slur stick it pays to
avoid focusing on Likudnik intellectuals. It pays to home in – with ribald
ridicule where possible – on available Likud targets, such as Levy and Kahlon
were, intimating that they represent the “great unwashed.” They’re a priori
presumed to be unschooled, unsophisticated and unworthy.
In time, though,
as Kahlon gained confidence after his 2009 ministerial appointment, a change of
heart toward him became apparent on the opposition side of the aisle. He loomed
as a spokesman on social justice issues. But it wasn’t his advocacy of the
have-nots that won him respect.
It wasn’t even his stand against the
cellphone monopolies (which wasn’t Kahlon’s initiative anyway, as the drive
against the shenanigans of serviceproviders was kick-started and switched into
high gear by Shas’s Ariel Attias).
It was, however, the fact that as
professed champion of the common man Kahlon could be depicted – whether rightly
or not – as Netanyahu’s in-house challenger. That suffices to make any man the
darling of the anti-Netanyahu brigades.
And the darling’s departure is
then sure to make it to the top of the news as a momentous
It’s all in the partisan eye of the