In the all-about-Bibi era of politics, Kahlon, Shaffir fall to bad choices

Israeli politics now is not about personalities or ideologies, but rather about one singular personality – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Moshe Kahlon at a weekly cabinet meeting, December 23rd, 2018 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Moshe Kahlon at a weekly cabinet meeting, December 23rd, 2018
Welcome to the post-ideological age of Israeli politics.
Want proof? Look at the merger yesterday of the Labor-Gesher Party – the most recent incarnation of the party of Israel’s founding prime minister David Ben-Gurion and the builders of the state – with Meretz, a party that, since 2009, removed any reference in its manifesto that it is a Zionist party.
Orly Levy-Abekasis is No. 2 in this party, more evidence of the death of ideology.
She began her political career in 2009 with Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu, which was on the hard right at that time; merged with Likud in 2013, when the two parties ran together in that year’s elections; split with Yisrael Beytenu in 2016 and became an independent MK; formed Gesher in 2018; merged Gesher with Labor in 2019; and is now No. 2 on the Meretz-Labor-Gesher list. Talk about ideological elasticity.
Want more proof? Look at the recent merger of Bayit Yehudi, the heir of what was once the National Religious Party that waved high the flag of mamlachtiyut (statism), with the Kahanist Otzmah Yehudit, for whom respect and even reverence for the instruments of the state are not exactly their guiding lights.
Ideology doesn’t matter; now it is all about political expediency – what technical mergers will work to get a hastily glued-together combination of parties past the 3.25% minimal threshold needed to get into the Knesset.
To pass that threshold, all types of mergers – the Zionists with those who may or may not define themselves as Zionists, the mamlachtim with those who are not – are kosher, even if on paper these mergers seem self-contradictory.
In a post-ideological age, one might have thought that ideology would be replaced by strong personalities, and that Israel’s new-age politics would be dominated by charismatic personalities. If the country no longer votes for a party based on its ideas, then surely, it votes for a party based on the forceful personalities of its leaders.
But that assumption is only half true. Israeli politics now is not about personalities but rather about one singular personality – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
In fact, it is all about Netanyahu.
The upcoming election is all about Netanyahu. The last two elections were all about Netanyahu. The debate ad nauseam about immunity is all about Netanyahu. The artificial political mergers being created – let alone the creation last year of the Blue and White party, whose MKs span the political spectrum – are all about Netanyahu.
It’s all about forming parties or blocs either to keep Netanyahu in power or to make sure he is removed.
That ideological politics has not been replaced with the politics of personalities is evident in the meteoric rise and rapid fall of two politicians who just five years ago seemed destined to dominate the political firmament for years: Moshe Kahlon and Stav Shaffir.
In 2015, Moshe Kahlon, once a rising star in Likud, rode the success he had as communications minister from 2009-2013 to lead a new party, Kulanu, which won 10 seats in the 2015 elections. He hoped, from his perch as the finance minister, to do to the housing market what he did to the cellphone market and dramatically bring down prices. Flush with this success, he expected to double the party’s take in the next election and win 20 seats.
Instead, because of policies and personality, he dropped to four seats in the April 2019 election, realized that his only path to political survival was to reenter the Likud, and now, according to multiple reports, has decided to leave politics as he has little chance of a key ministry if Likud retains power in the next elections.
Had he not taken a break from the Likud in 2013 – when he was full of a sense that he could climb much higher than was possible for him inside the Likud – and stayed loyal to the party, rather than bolting it to form Kulanu, he would be one of the leading names inside the Likud seen as a natural to replace Netanyahu in the Likud’s post-Bibi age.
Shaffir burst onto the political scene in 2013, a fresh face in politics recruited by Labor after serving as one of the leaders of the cost-of-living protests that rocked the country in 2011. In 2015, when Kahlon rode success with Kulanu, she won the second spot in the Labor Party primary at the age of 29, after Shelly Yacimovich and then party head Isaac Herzog.
Shaffir made a name for herself in the Knesset with her fiery rhetoric and combative style and ran for the Labor Party leadership in 2019. When she lost to Amir Peretz, she bolted the party and helped orchestrate with Ehud Barak a union with Meretz called the Democratic Union that finished with a dismal five seats.
Following her political choices, she found herself outside both Labor and Meretz – and now, as a result of the merger, outside the new framework as well and heading the Green Party, which has little chance of making it into the next Knesset.
Kahlon’s and Shaffir’s trajectories say something about Israeli politics these days: As popular as you might be, or think that you are, you still need an apparatus. You might have ambitions to travel long distances, but you need a vehicle to get you there, and once in that car, you have to get along with the other passengers.
To carry the car analogy a little further, if you leave the car and jump into another, don’t expect the first vehicle – full of people you fought with and were annoyed with when you jumped out of the auto – to circle back to pick you up when you are left standing alone on the side of the road.
Post-ideological Israeli politics today is all about smart political maneuvering. And those who get outmaneuvered – like Shaffir and Kahlon – are lost.