Yair Lapid (Getty Images); Moshe Kahlon (Facebook
When Yair Lapid skyrocketed to the top of Israeli politics during the last election campaign in 2013, he did it by positioning himself as the most “hevrati” (socio-economically conscious) candidate. He and his party, Yesh Atid, capitalized on the momentum of the “tent protests” that brought half a million Israelis to the streets to fight the rising cost of living. By speaking to this middle-class frustration, Yesh Atid wound up with 19 seats and the Finance, Education, Welfare and Health portfolios.
Now, less than two years later, Yesh Atid has fallen from both grace and the governing coalition, and Israel’s exhausted middle-class has understood that its hope was misplaced. But while Israel’s socio-economic problems are worse than ever, Israelis still want someone to hope with — and this time around, it’s Moshe Kahlon.
Born into a Mizrahi family in a working-class neighborhood in Hadera, Kahlon rose to fame as communications, and later as welfare, minister in Bibi Netanyahu’s second term when he successfully broke the Israeli cell phone cartel, slashing prices by up to 90%. He surprised many by bowing out of politics in late 2012, though there was widespread speculation that he was planning an electoral bid. While Kahlon wound up sitting out the last round of elections, he finally founded his new party, Kulanu (All of Us), last year.
Kulanu’s campaign is heavily based on Kahlon’s reputation as both “social-friendly” and untarnished by the corruption scandals that regularly sweep Israeli politics. According to a recent survey of the Israeli public by the Jerusalem Post and Maariv, Kahlon is the “least corrupt” of the major candidates and best at handling socioeconomic issues. It comes as no surprise, then, that Kulanu is quickly becoming the Yesh Atid of 2015.
But the reality of Kahlon’s record tells quite a different story.
The Israel Land Administration is a notorious government bureaucracy, whose precise functions are a mystery to most Israelis. And yet, one day before polling opens here in Israel, the whole country is talking about it.
The reason is that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced yesterday that the popular minister Moshe Kahlon, who aid ahead of the campaign that he was leaving politics, will become director of this body which controls the release of land for building.
Kahlon is loved because he’s a salt-of-the-earth kind of guy in a Likud party which is increasingly seen as serving Israel’s tycoons. In a country where ethnicity matters in politics he’s Sephardi in an Ashkenazi-dominated faction. Last but not least, in these important hours in which the parties try to catch floating voters (more than 10% of voters are still undecided) Kahlon has the ability to attract socially-concerned voters who may otherwise go for the centrist parties.
And so, while Netanyahu can’t undo the fact that Kahlon isn’t standing for Knesset, he’s done the next-best thing — appointed him to a high-profile unelected post. His big achievement as Communications Minister in the last Knesset was to reduce cellphone prices, and Netanyahu is indicating that he’ll have the same kind of impact on house prices.
But house prices are far more complex than cellphone packages, and one wonders why, if bringing house prices down is really so simple as appointing the right man to the job, why Netanyahu didn’t do exactly that 18 months ago when the social protestors took to the streets objecting to high living costs? If the answer is that this has more to do with the poll than with real concern about housing prices, one wonders how ethical making civil service appointments is as a form of electioneering. What happened to good old fashioned baby-kissing?