If you were Benjamin Netanyahu, who would you least like to confront as your main rival for the prime ministership three months from now?

Would it be a former prime minister stained by one corruption conviction, on trial in a second corruption case, and facing a possible state appeal against his acquittals in two more? Would it be a political prima donna so undervalued by her own party that it ditched her after she failed to beat you in the last elections? Would it be a former journalist with some credibility in the field of social-justice activism, but no experience in matters of security and defense? Would it be a former TV news anchor with no political experience whatsoever?

No, no, no and no. The electoral threats posed, respectively, by Ehud Olmert, Tzipi Livni, Shelly Yachimovich and Yair Lapid, it can be safely assumed, do not have Netanyahu waking up in the small hours in a cold sweat.

Well, then, would it be arguably the most popular minister in your outgoing government, 11 years younger than you, beloved by the public because of his proven guts to take on the fat cats, who grew up in a working class neighborhood where his elderly mother still lives and who he reportedly calls once a day, one of seven children in a family of immigrants from Libya?

Now we’re talking.

Barely two weeks ago, out of the blue, Moshe Kahlon, 51, the rising star of the Likud — the communications minister who introduced genuine competition into Israel’s mobile phone industry, taking on the tycoons who were monopolizing it, and saving just about every Israeli several hundred shekels a month (which voters tend to appreciate) — announced that he was taking a “time out” from politics.

A time out? Why on earth? After all, as another leading if less loved Israeli politician, Avigdor Liberman, remarked just this weekend, “At the end of the day, every politician wants to stand at the head of the system.”

And Kahlon was well on the way. Along with his phone feats, the man from Hadera was also appointed minister of welfare and social services two years ago, and swiftly became the caring face of a government generally seen as rather heartless, spearheading an effort from within to reallocate resources to ease some of the economic hardships of impoverished Israelis. He complained about bank fees. He sought to cut electricity prices, or at least offer subsidized rates for those most in need. This, too, was a major factor in his popularity. “When he spoke to Likud members about his elderly mother in (Hadera’s) Givat Olga neighborhood struggling to pay her electricity and water bills,” noted Haaretz’s political commentator Yossi Verter, “they believed every word of it.”

“Kahlon could have spent the Likud primary campaign (in which party members will choose their Knesset representatives in late November) sitting on a beach in Thailand with a coconut in his hand, and he’d still have come out on top,” observed Kahlon’s fellow Likud MK Karmel Shama-HaCohen, with unusual verve and a small dash of envy, in an Israel Radio interview on Wednesday morning.

But no, Kahlon was adamant that he was taking a break from politics. He’d not be leaving the Likud, he made clear. He’d help with the election campaign, and to formulate polices for the first 100 days of the next anticipated Netanyahu government. He just wouldn’t serve in it.

Naturally, this inexplicable, stereotype-defying abandonment of political ambition set the rumor mill spinning. He’d done something scandalous, and the dirty details were about to emerge? Forget it. This is a political Mr. Clean. He wanted to run for mayor of Haifa? No, he didn’t, said the man himself. He’d fallen out with Netanyahu, dismayed by the blocking of some of his suggested economic reforms? While anonymous sources whispered darkly in the affirmative, Kahlon denied that too. There’d been differences of opinion over socio-economic policy, he acknowledged, but nothing out of the ordinary, and no profound tensions between them. In fact, just four months ago, Netanyahu praised him to the hilt in front of his peers, imploring the rest of the cabinet team to follow Kahlon’s example. “Look at all the problems there were in the field of communications,” the prime minister chided the rest of his underperforming ministerial flock. “Minister Kahlon solved them all. You should be Kahlon-ites. Find solutions!”

And then, on Wednesday morning, came the apparent answer, the solution to the mystery of the minister who was moving out. A new opinion poll, published in two Hebrew newspapers, showed that a centrist party led by Kahlon would win 20 seats in the January 22 elections. Better yet, a centrist party with Kahlon and Livni would win 26 seats — only one fewer than Netanyahu’s mighty Likud garnered in the 2009 elections.

Now, claimed the pundits, the Kahlon cat was out of the bag. That’s why he had announced his resignation. He’d be quitting the Likud — angered by its indifference to social inequalities; realizing that the ambitious Ashkenazi ministers at the top of the Likud pyramid would prevent him, a Sephardi, rising to a front-line cabinet post such as minister of finance; infuriated when he got word of Netanyahu’s new alliance with Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu Party — and setting up a new party, ready to challenge for the top job.

The Sephardi-Ashkenazi aspect was much cited by radio political pundits Wednesday. It was, after all, Sephardi voters who first brought the Likud to power in 1977, and it is Sephardi voters who have ensured it has been in government more than out in the 35 years since. The Likud rank and file are Sephardim like Kahlon. The Likud activists are Sephardim like Kahlon. The Likud leadership, by contrast, has lately included just two prominent Sephardim, the wealthy deputy prime minister Silvan Shalom… and Moshe Kahlon. Israel’s Sephardi-Ashkenazi divide — the rift between the secular elites from eastern and central Europe, and the struggling, generally more Orthodox arrivals from North Africa and the Middle East — has narrowed immensely in recent decades, but the Likud leadership has taken Ashkenazi domination to extremes. Now Kahlon, the pundits posited, was going to make them pay.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu embraces outgoing Minister Moshe Kahlon at the Likud Central Committee meeting in Tel Aviv on Monday (photo credit: Roni Schutzer/FLASH90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu embraces outgoing Minister Moshe Kahlon at the Likud Central Committee meeting in Tel Aviv on Monday (photo credit: Roni Schutzer/FLASH90)

Just the one problem with this elaborate scenario. As of Wednesday afternoon, Kahlon was still reportedly denying everything. He didn’t commission the poll, associates said. He didn’t even hear about its findings until after lots of other people had. And he’s not leaving the Likud. Remember, he chaired Monday’s Central Committee meeting at which the alliance with Yisrael Beytenu was approved, and was embraced by Netanyahu at the podium. “Moshe, you were born in the Likud, you’ll stay in the Likud, you’ll always be in the Likud and you’ll help the Likud win the next elections,” a smiling Netanyahu declared, hugging the departing minister as the crowd roared its approval. Kahlon smiled happily at the embrace and the cheering. If he had something to feel guilty or embarrassed about, it didn’t show.

Netanyahu is almost certainly right. Kahlon would be an adventurous politician indeed if he risked the ire of the Likud faithful, bolted and competed against his home base.

Of course, that’s exactly what Ariel Sharon did seven years ago. But Sharon was a proven leader, with a stable, even adulatory political base.

Still, if that’s not the plan, then why, again, is Moshe Kahlon resigning?