Israel’s political arena was rife with rumors Thursday that retiring Communications Minister Moshe Kahlon, arguably the most popular minister in the outgoing government, is considering launching a breakaway party to rival his own Likud, possibly because of disagreements with the prime minister.
A political associate suggested in an interview to Army Radio Thursday that the minister was disgruntled after learning that he would not be offered a top position in a future Likud-led government.
Other media outlets quoted aides and close associates of Kahlon as saying the minister would not have any qualms about forming a new party to challenge Likud’s apparent dominance in the coming elections should further polls indicate a favorable showing for him. According to initial polls, Kahlon — who gained wide popular support for spearheading reforms to the cellphone industry as communications minister, and also served concurrently as social affairs minister — could win 20 or more seats.
Kahlon, in a surprise move, 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, however, that “obviously I’m 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, 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.
Netanyahu was asked about Kahlon at his press conference with French President Francois Hollande in Paris on Wednesday.
“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, half-apologizing 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.