Even before early election results were published Tuesday night, Moshe Kahlon was poised to become the next finance minister.
The final pre-election polls showed that both the Right and Left blocs fall short of the 61 seats needed to form a coalition. By sticking to the center, Kahlon put himself in the position to be wooed by both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud and MK Isaac Herzog of the Zionist Union, even if he failed to pull out an electoral surprise.
Netanyahu already announced he would offer Kahlon the Finance portfolio, one of the most powerful ministries in the government. Herzog did not reciprocate. If he wants Kulanu to swing his way, he will have to give Kahlon a good incentive to recommend him as premier to President Reuven Rivlin.
Though Kahlon’s campaign has admirably appealed to people living in the periphery, women and minorities, it never quite caught fire.
He managed to bring former ambassador to the US Michael Oren and former OC Southern Command Maj.- Gen. (res.) Yoav Galant onto his list, but failed to attract many other stars.
The names on the Kulanu list all have admirable résumés, but little name recognition.
The candidates’ experience in municipal politics was intended to pull support from their various locales, but their accomplishments failed to elicit excitement from voters nationally.
Few had heard, for example, of Tsega Melaku, the Ethiopian-Israeli radio host he picked as his third-spot candidate, who was subsequently disqualified from running by the Central Elections Committee.
So how did Kahlon, whose party got just nine or 10 seats in first post-election surveys, end up the favorite to head the treasury? Knowing he couldn’t rely on an Election- Day bump, he kept a clever insurance policy: a political strategy of sticking squarely to the center and doggedly focusing on socioeconomic 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.
When the Zionist Union’s 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 Netanyahu, whose Finance Ministry promise he dismissed (Netanyahu reneged on his 2013 promise to put Kahlon in the Israel Lands Authority).
He scoffed at the Zionist Union’s Finance candidate Manuel Trajtenberg and endlessly derided Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid, his centrist rival and wouldbe predecessor, who “failed” as finance minister.
But Kahlon generally kept from commenting on issues outside the economic realm, even when it was politically tempting.
Kahlon’s inability to pull out the kind of newcomer advantage that helped Lapid boost his party to 19 seats in the 2013 election, from 12 in the pre-election polls, is still somewhat surprising.
He produced credible platforms with the help of serious thinkers. His central accomplishment, reforming the cellular market, has lowered residents’ 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.