A new party headed by retiring Communications Minister Moshe Kahlon would garner 10 seats in the upcoming elections, according to a poll released on Thursday by the Geocartography research institute. An earlier poll, by Rafi Smith released on Wednesday, had indicated a Kahlon-led party might win 20 seats, or even 27 if he partnered with former foreign minister Tzipi Livni.
In recent days, rumors that Kahlon is considering establishing a new party have been rampant, and while the outgoing Likud MK has not publicly confirmed any such speculations, neither has he denied anything.
Israeli media reported on Thursday that Kahlon will join former Shas maverick MK Haim Amsalem on the Am Shalem party list. According to a Channel 1 report, Kahlon would join Amsalem because he would be unable to establish a new party in the small amount of time between now and the January 22 elections.
Amsalem announced on Thursday that Maj.-Gen. (Res.) Elazar Stern had joined the Am Shalem party. Stern is highly regarded in national religious circles. He retired in 2008 from the IDF, where he had served as the head of the education corps, commander of the officers’ school, and the head of the manpower division.
Amsalem was ejected from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party’s Knesset faction amid disagreements over several issues, most notably the drafting of yeshiva students into the IDF, and announced that he would run for the Knesset on a separate list. Amsalem made clear in June that he would be seeking support mainly from Shas’s Sephardi voter base, with a platform encouraging military service and work rather than full-time yeshiva study. Kahlon, one of only two Sephardi ministers in the Likud cabinet team in the outgoing government, would presumably also seek support among Sephardi voters, though not exclusively so.
Amsalem’s prospects of crossing the 2% threshold needed to enter the Knesset in the elections had appeared small until now. But a partnership with Kahlon could change the picture.
Kahlon unexpectedly announced two weeks ago that he was stepping down from the Knesset for a “time-out” and would not run for a seat with the Likud in the January elections. He stressed at the time that he was “obviously…not leaving the Likud,” and promised to work for the party to ensure it won the elections.
On Monday night, he chaired the Likud Central Committee meeting at which the party approved Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposal for a joint Knesset list with Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu. Netanyahu publicly embraced Kahlon at the event, and declared warmly, “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.”
On Thursday, Likud MKs were scrambling to bring the minister back into the fold.
Knesset Speaker MK Reuven Rivlin called on Kahlon to remain with the party and urged him to fight for his social beliefs from within the right-wing Likud.
“Why leave, Moshe?” Rivlin asked rhetorically. “Stay in the Likud and become a social leader.”
In an interview with Israel Radio, MK Carmel Shama-HaCohen (Likud) said Kahlon was the most suitable candidate to be finance minister, saying that he was an asset to the Likud, and had cross-party appeal. On the other hand, Shama HaCohen said that if Kahlon intended to form his own party then he must immediately resign from all Likud activities. He further recommended that as soon as Netanyahu returned from France, where the prime minister is currently on a state visit, he should set to work on convincing Kahlon to campaign with the Likud.
“He explicitly told me that he was staying in the Likud. He said the same thing publicly and I believe he will stay in the Likud,” Netanyahu said on Wednesday, at his press conference with French President Francois Hollande in Paris. The prime minister even half-apologized to his host that he had brought domestic Israeli politics with him.
Meanwhile, Haaretz reported that Kahlon had already been in touch with several Likud members about defecting along with him.
Channel 10 claimed Wednesday that many Likud party activists, angered that the Likud has not focused sufficiently on economic problems afflicting the party’s lower-middle-class Sephardi voting base, were ready to jump ship along with Kahlon.
Kahlon was elected as a Likud MK in 2003 and quickly became a popular figure in the party and in the Knesset. Political analysts see Kahlon — one of seven children of immigrants from Libya — as a vital link between the Likud’s top leaders and the rank-and-file Sephardi supporters of the party. He was one of only two ministers of Sephardi origin in the Likud ranks in the outgoing government.
Some pundits, however, have also raised the possibility that the whole idea of a Kahlon campaign might be a clever tactic hatched by him and Netanyahu. In this theory, Kahlon leaves the Likud and forms a party that draws voters from the center and center-left, for whom economic issues are more pressing than diplomatic-security issues. He then brings this party into the next Netanyahu-led coalition.