Moshe Kahlon, new dark horse of Israeli politics

By Nathan Jeffay, April 18, 2014

One of the most popular politicians to leave the Knesset in the last decade has announced plans to return to public life — spelling possible trouble for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Moshe Kahlon, a star of Mr Netanyahu’s Likud during the last Knesset session, said last week that he was making a comeback and indicated that it will be in a rival party. “I’ve decided to return to politics,” he told the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot, “but I haven’t decided on the framework”.

He also delivered a stinging attack on today’s Likud, saying that it had “strayed” from its path. He said that the government had brought “negative outcomes”, including the growing cost of living.

This is a major thorn in Mr Netanyahu’s side.

Mr Kahlon’s popularity in the last Knesset stemmed from the fact that he was widely viewed as an antidote to the image of the party as one that only serves Israel’s tycoons. Originally a working-class Sephardi in a Likud that is dominated by middle-class Ashkenazim, he strongly believed that Likud should have a social platform.

During and after the social protests of 2011, Mr Netanyahu used Mr Kahlon as his trump card to argue that you can have a social conscience and belong to Likud. He is known by Israelis as the man who reined in mobile phone companies and massively reduced their monthly bills. When he announced that he was not standing in the last election, Mr Netanyahu desperately tried to retain him as a political asset by giving him a prominent role in a government agency — a plan that subsequently failed.

Now Mr Kahlon says that Likud’s “social banner has been dismantled” and is thought to be planning to launch his own party. Polling suggests that if elections were held now, his party would win one in 12 Knesset seats.

If such speculation sounds sensationalist, it is worth remembering the pre-election excitement that swirled around another fresh political force, Yair Lapid, who is now Finance Minister and head of Yesh Atid.

The Israeli public is always desperate for “originality”. Two government ministers, Mr Lapid and Naftali Bennett, Economy Minister and leader of the Jewish Home party, are Knesset freshmen. Mr Kahlon, as well as being viewed as original, has experience to boot. And while to the left of Mr Netanyahu on social issues, he is further right on the Palestinian issue —a combination that could prove popular. He may just turn out to be the man who destablisises Bibi.

Last updated: 12:45pm, April 18 2014