Campaign notebook

At working class market, Kahlon clings to hopes of being a kingmaker again

A trip to Tel Aviv’s Hatikva neighborhood highlights the underdog Kulanu leader’s balancing act as he tries to hang on to cast-off Likud voters and remain in the Knesset

Raoul Wootliff

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Kulanu leader Moshe Kahlon (R) embracing a supporter during a visit to Tel Aviv's Hatikva Market, March 28, 2019. (Kulanu)
Kulanu leader Moshe Kahlon (R) embracing a supporter during a visit to Tel Aviv's Hatikva Market, March 28, 2019. (Kulanu)

There aren’t many places where Moshe Kahlon is still welcomed like a rock star. Eight years after ushering through an uber-popular cell phone market reform and four years after being crowned a kingmaker of Israeli politics, the former Likud minister has seen his political fortunes plummet after his punishing years as Treasury chief.

In Tel Aviv’s Hatikva Market, the hub of a working class neighborhood whose right-leaning residents are key to his election strategy, though, he was greeted like a hero on Thursday.

Arriving with current and former members of both the Israel national soccer team and the local Bnei Yehudah club, a perpetually smiling Kahlon enthusiastically shook hands with market sellers and shoppers who flocked around him for a hug or a selfie.

“What amazing people. You are all the salt of the earth,” he told a grocer offering him free strawberries.

“May God bless you to bring you many votes,” the apron-clad man said in return.

The choice of the Hatikva Market over the more traditional campaign stop in Tel Aviv’s venerable Carmel Market was carefully considered. Founded by Yemenite, Iraqi and Syrian Jewish immigrants, the market is the beating heart of the Hatikva neighborhood, a warren of narrow streets and crumbling homes seemingly left behind by the rest of Israel’s booming high-tech capital.

Kahlon’s struggling Kulanu party needs to maintain support from disenfranchised Likud voters here, and others like them around the county, who cast a vote for him in 2015.

Kulanu leader Moshe Kahlon (C) visiting Tel Aviv’s Hatikva Market, March 28, 2019. (Kulanu)

As food writers Rotem Maimon and Alma Elliott Hofmann wrote of the market in 2018, “Between the reviving Levinsky Market and the Carmel Market, already a tourist magnet, the Hatikva Market remains an underdog that’s not striving to impress anyone.”

The description may also be good as a metaphor for Kahlon’s own understated campaign. Indeed, between a surging Benny Gantz and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, already a voter magnet, Kahlon too remains an underdog, seeking votes from those worried more about their next paycheck than billion shekel submarine deals.

Kulanu leader Moshe Kahlon (C) visiting Tel Aviv’s Hatikva Market, March 28, 2019. (Kulanu)

Alongside activists brandishing banners reading, “Kahlon, the only one who cares,” the finance minister sought Thursday to present himself as an earnest defender of the ignored working class.

“The entire media is obsessed with what Gantz has on his phone and Netanyahu’s submarine deals. We on the other hand are dealing with the needs of real people. We are dealing with real people. This is our agenda. The people of Israel,” Kahlon told the crowd following him through the market.

“Help put us in a position so we can make a real difference,” he said in both an admission of his party’s relative weakness, and, at the same time, its potential strength.

With recent polling shows that Kulanu could drop from 10 to five Knesset seats, or even fail to clear the 3.25 percent electoral threshold, Kahlon is engaging in a two-pronged effort to both prevent voters from defecting back to the Likud, and stop others leaving for Gantz’s Blue and White.

If Kulanu does manage to gather enough support to remain in the Knesset, Kahlon could become the most important figure in Israel’s fragile political arena. If neither Gantz not Netanyahu can build a 61 seat majority in the 120-seat Knesset without Kulanu, the center-right leader may end up being the kingmaker yet again, granted outsized power to make demands of both in return for supporting them to be prime minister.

For now, though, he’s only just clinging on to his dwindling supporters.

Lining the market’s main thoroughfare, Hatikva residents appeared aware of the power their vote held, both for Kahlon and for those seeking to lead the country.

“If Kahlon doesn’t get in then Bibi won’t either,” a butcher named Yosef, referring to the prime minister by his ubiquitous nickname, tried to tell some of his market colleagues, who were looking skeptically at the passing procession.

“Bibi doesn’t need him, or anyone,” replied another butcher named Yisrael to the audible agreement of the other two market men in the conversation. “And we don’t need Kahlon to get Bibi.”

Kulanu leader Moshe Kahlon (R) visiting Tel Aviv’s Hatikva Market, March 28, 2019. (Kulanu)

Yosef was the only one of the four who said he would vote for the Kulanu leader. “We need Bibi for security and Kahlon for us,” he told The Times of Israel, saying this would be his second time backing him.

Another in the group, who asked not to be named, said he had voted for Kahlon in 2015 but wouldn’t be repeating the decision. “I’m going Right. Either Bibi or Otzma,” he said, referring to the far-right Otzma Yehudit faction part of the Union of Right-Wing Parties.

Doron Shubeli, a regular market customer who described himself as “Hatikva, born and raised,” said he wanted Netanyahu as prime minister but cared more about returning Kahlon to the Finance Ministry.

“He has always fought for the regular man and he has shown that as finance minister too,” Shubeli said.

Kahlon is claiming that in the finance position, he successfully implemented promised reforms to lower housing prices and the cost of living, while also vowing to push a number of new measures aimed at helping working and middle class families.

Balancing act

First elected to the Knesset on the Likud ticket in 2003, Kahlon became communications minister in 2009, spearheading a reform to drastically cut cellphone service rates before replacing Isaac Herzog (Labor) in January 2011 at the helm of the Welfare and Social Services Ministry, where he continued his consumer crusade and fought the banks to lower their tariffs for customers.

Communications Minister Moshe Kahlon said he was spreading his wings and leaving politics (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Communications Minister Moshe Kahlon announcing that his is leaving politics, 2012. Miriam Alster/Flash90)

As a popular figure in the Likud, Kahlon surprised the political establishment in 2012 when he announced he would not run in the national elections the next year, neither as part of the ruling party nor with any other party, in order to take a break from politics.

Formed in 2014, during the election campaign, his Kulanu party initially focused nearly exclusively on socio-economic issues, shying away from hot button issues like the rule of law, settlements and the peace process.

But since becoming finance minister in 2015, none of his economic initiatives have managed to repeat the excitement of his salad days, and he has become just as well-known as the only moderating voice in a government void of any left-wing or center-left factions.

The visit to Hatikvah, where residents lean right and have been hard hit by an influx of African migrants, highlighted the careful balancing act he is playing between presenting himself as both an asset to Netanyahu’s next government, and a key check on the government’s more far-reaching policies.

The other Kulanu slogan being used in this election, declaring the party as “Sensible Right,” was notably missing from the posters and chants brandished by party activists at the market.

While Kahlon opened his re-election campaign in January by promising to be “the sole voice within the government” fighting “anti-democratic and irresponsible legislation,” he has reportedly sought to play down the message in recent weeks over fears it could cause deep damage to his standing with right-wing voters.

In addition to Netanyahu’s Likud and the ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism, Kulanu was joined in the coalition by the religious-Zionist Jewish Home party, the Knesset’s strongest proponent of expanded settlement building and, under leaders Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, aggressive judicial reform. Somewhat reluctantly, Kahlon became the only minister opposed to unbridled legislation in favor of settlements or against the justice system.

Specifically, he blocked a version of the so-called Regulation Law — which sought to prevent settlements built on private land from being demolished if they were built with state assistance — that would have overturned past court rulings on the subject.

More controversially for Hatikva residents, he prevented the passage of a far-reaching bill that would have removed the Supreme Court’s ability to overturn Knesset legislation, specifically a law allowing the forced deportations of the approximately 38,000 African asylum seekers in Israel, at least half of whom live in south Tel Aviv, according to a Knesset report from 2016.

Residents of south Tel Aviv protest the government’s failure to remove tens of thousands of African refugees and asylum seekers from the area’s impoverished neighborhoods, on August 30, 2018. (AFP/Jack Guez)

“You screwed us with the infiltrators,” shouted 64-year-old Dafna Levy at Kahlon as he passed her in the market, using a term for migrants.

His entourage struggled to maneuver around her and her shopping trolley, which she refused to move out of the way. Still smiling, Kahlon leaned toward the woman and told her that, “I also want to get rid of them, and we will make sure to.”

But Kahlon refused to say whether he would back fresh efforts to limit the Supreme Court after the election (after being repeatedly asked by The Times of Israel), and Levy seemed unconvinced.

After Kahlon had moved on to the next market stall Levy, still clinging onto her trolley, said that the warm welcome Kahlon received at the market did not represent how most residents of the area felt about him.

“Yes, some people like Kahlon here,” she said, “but this is really a Likud area; they like him because he’s from the Likud.”

Likud country

No less than an hour after Kahlon has passed through the market, with Kulanu fliers still lining the pavement, the Likud party campaign also turned up here.

Apparently unintentionally, it was specifically Immigration Minister Yoav Gallant, who defected to the ruling party from Kulanu just two months ago, leading the procession of Likud lawmakers and activists.

Likud Minsiter Yoav Gallant (R) during a visit to Tel Aviv’s Hatikva Market, March 28, 2019. (Raoul Wootliff/Times of Israel)

Like his former boss, Gallant, along with Likud’s Science Minister Ofir Akunis, coalition chairman David Amsalem and MK Amir Ohana, was also treated like a celebrity by the crowd as they shook hands and exchanged back slaps with potential voters.

“I love campaigning and I love coming to a place like this to be with real people,” Amsalem said via a loudspeaker, in words echoing Kahlon’s comments made in the same spot minutes before. But stressing his own party’s dominance in neighborhoods like Hatikva, the coalition chairman declared, “This is Likud country, and it always will be.”

Asked later if he believed that Kahlon could nonetheless end up holding the power over Netanyahu as a kingmaker of sorts, Amsalem said, “Ultimately, the people, not him or me, will decide.”

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