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The possibility of dramatic change

One political figure could unseat Benjamin Netanyahu: His name is Moshe Kahlon

With elections in 2015 looming in Israel, a number of considerations suggest that Moshe Kahlon might emerge as a big winner.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s electoral successes in 2009 and 2013 indicate that his core views resonate with a major part of the population. Despite the international media’s preference for labeling him a “hardliner,” he is more typically seen in Israel as the voice of the center-right. (The Jewish Home party is considered to be to the right of the Likud, and within the Likud, figures such as Moshe Feiglin and Danny Danon criticize Netanyahu from the right.)

Netanyahu has indicated willingness to compromise on the Palestinian issue as long as Israel’s security is not endangered and vital Jewish interests are protected. He clearly has strengths and is politically astute, which is why for years polls have shown that he is regarded by the public as the politician most suited to be prime minister. (This view was held by 33% of respondents in the latest Globes poll. The next highest percentage was for Isaac Herzog at 15%.)

Despite unhappiness about the deterioration in the relationship between Israel and the U.S., most Israelis probably hold Obama more responsible than Netanyahu for this development, since a majority of Israelis believe that President Barack Obama favors the Palestinians. (A recent Jerusalem Post poll showed 53% saying Obama is more pro-Palestinian than pro-Israel, vs. 16% who believe the reverse.) Of course, like all leaders, Benjamin Netanyahu has his weaknesses and flaws, and he has alienated various individuals and groups. These accumulate, which is one of the reasons why a politician who has been in power for a long time tends to be more vulnerable.

Who are his main potential competitors?

Isaac Herzog, leader of the opposition labor party, is unlikely to emerge as the new prime minister because his party has, unfortunately, positioned itself well left of center. It is no longer the party it was under the leadership of Yitzhak Rabin, whose cautious views about the nature of a future Palestinian entity and his positions on borders and Jerusalem were jettisoned by Ehud Barak and those who have followed him.

Yair Lapid, leader of Yesh Atid, has not won the trust of the population that he would be a careful and effective leader. (According to the recent Globes poll, only 6% of respondents regard him as suited to be prime minister.) He has been accused of being more adversarial towards the prime minister than appropriate for a senior government minister. Furthermore, his continued advocacy of the zero VAT proposal for certain house buyers, despite the opposition of many economists, is misplaced obstinacy. Most prominently, Dr. Karnit Flug, Governor of the Bank of Israel, is opposed to the idea due to its demerits, not because she is acting from political considerations.

Naftali Bennett, leader of Bayit Yehudi, is too prone to making strong, often posturing statements that seem aimed at winning the cheers of his core constituency.

Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of Yisrael Beteinu, has probably improved his image among Israelis but is unlikely to replace Netanyahu as the preferred leader of the center-right.

Were that the full cast of potential competitors, it is most likely that Benjamin Netanyahu will return as prime minister. If so, one hopes that it will be with a better functioning coalition.

However, the Israeli electorate has a demonstrated willingness to embrace new faces and/or new parties from the political center. It happened with Yigal Yadin and the Democratic Movement for Change in 1977 and with Kadima in 2006. Most recently it happened with Yair Lapid and even Naftali Bennett in 2013, who cast himself as more centrist than the old National Religious Party that Bayit Yehudi replaced. Tommy Lapid’s electoral success was also in this mold, but not quite as sudden; as new leader of Shinui, the party won six seats in the 1999 elections and jumped to 15 seats in the 2003 elections.

It is possible that Moshe Kahlon might have similar success in the coming elections. While not a new face in the political world, he is expected to announce that he is running at the head of a new political party. He declined to run on the Likud list in 2013 and has indicated his unhappiness with the government’s economic policies. He has the distinct advantage of being a former government minister with a strong track record. As Minister of Communications in the Netanyahu government formed in 2009, he spearheaded the opening up of competition in the cellular phone market that lead to a dramatic fall in the price of phone service. In 2011 he was appointed Minister of Welfare and Social Services.

If Kahlon articulates a national security approach that is “center-right” in its main outline, which may be the case given his roots in the Likud, and if he assembles a party list with strong talent and clear security credentials, his newness as a political leader combined with his track record might propel his new party to a highly successful electoral outcome. If Yair Lapid could win 19 seats in 2013, perhaps Kahlon could win even more, in part by attracting votes from people tired of Netanyahu or disappointed with Lapid. Though a long shot, enough votes might make him a possible prime minister. In any event, if his party makes a strong showing at the ballot boxes, he can expect to be offered a senior ministry.

About the Author
Lewis Rosen is a retired economist who has lived in Jerusalem for more than 35 years. Born and educated in the US, he worked for the Office of Economic Opportunity for two years in Washington D.C. and was on the economics faculty of York University in Toronto, Canada for 13 years. In Israel he has been involved in a wide range of business planning and economic analysis projects.
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