I’m planning to vote for Meretz, but if Kahlon has a chance on election day of beating Netanyahu, I’ll vote for him.
I was talking a couple of days ago about the upcoming elections with a friend from work, a middle-class, American-born Ashkenazi immigrant with a Ph. D. in political science. He told me he was voting for the left-wing, largely Arab Hadash party. I asked who he would vote for if, on election day, which is tentatively set for March 17, the “wild card” in the race, ex-Likudnik Moshe Kahlon, had a chance to become the next prime minister. “Then I’d vote for Kahlon,” he said. Myself, I’m planning to vote for Meretz, the left-wing Zionist party, but if Kahlon has a chance on election day of beating Netanyahu, whom the polls now rate the favorite, then I’ll vote for Kahlon, too.
This is meant as an illustration of Kahlon’s potential; Hadash and Meretz voters are the last people who would seem likely to vote for a politician whose role model is Menachem Begin. Polls now give Kahlon about 10 Knesset seats (out of 120); he’ll need double that to lead the next government. But I think he can do it. The latest poll, conducted for The Jerusalem Post and Ma’ariv and released Thursday, finds him the single most popular candidate for prime minister, outpolling Netanyahu, 46% to 36%.
Bibi can be beaten. He’s been around too long, he hasn’t delivered much, the atmosphere in the country is extremely unpleasant, and people are tired of his mouth and face. They blame him for these unwanted early elections that are going to cost $500 million. They see the government as a mess with him sitting atop it. They want somebody new, but Netanyahu’s only rivals until now, Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett and Yisrael Beiteinu head Avigdor Lieberman, are too far right for the mainstream.
Kahlon is not. Alone among Israeli politicians, he can win support from the sane right, the center, and even – if it’s between him, Netanyahu and Bennett on election day – the left. He has exclusive ownership of the No. 1 campaign issue – economic hardship, especially the high cost of living – from having broken the cell phone monopoly and dramatically slashed cell phone prices as communications minister in 2012, a move that instantly made him the wonder boy of Israeli politics. As the only Mizrahi in the race, he can attract a lot of Mizrahi votes from Likud and the Mizrahi ultra-Orthodox Shas party, yet is likable and educated enough (with degrees in political science and law) to neutralize Ashkenazi prejudice inside the ballot box. His absence from politics for nearly two years has spared him from the public’s rising disgust with politicians, which just went up several more notches on account of the new election. He’s not a hater, not an Arab basher, not a Likud fascist, which also carries a lot of appeal with the mainstream. In that way he’s a breath of fresh air, like President Reuven Rivlin.
If Kahlon’s party – which doesn’t even have a name or a list of candidates yet – is the largest vote-getter and he becomes prime minister, he will not end the occupation, certainly not in a first term. He’s not a peacenik; he’s never shown any inclination to take down settlements or agree to a Palestinian state. (Though at a campaign stop in a Tel Aviv pub on Friday, he reportedly described himself as “center and slightly right-leaning,’ and said, “I will not hesitate to concede territory for real peace. I will not miss an opportunity for peace.”) And even if he were to move left in office, he would not have a government behind him; the right-wing parties are too popular to form a ruling coalition without at least one of them, and none would sit still for any peace agreement that the Palestinians could be party to.
But if Kahlon became Israel’s next leader, at the very least he would not seek to humiliate Arabs at every turn; he would not pick fights with them like Netanyahu and his allies constantly do. Also, he would make it acceptable again to talk about helping the poor, not just the middle class. He told Yedioth Ahronoth in April, as reported in Times of Israel:
Likud for me was really the Likud of Menachem Begin, who also represented a social vision: reducing disparities between rich and poor, neighborhood renewal, social rehabilitation, and education reform. It was a pragmatic Likud that knew how to make peace when needed. That is Likud for me. But that Likud no longer exists today, and I struggle to accept some of the things taking place within the party.
Likud is a way of life, Likud is social awareness, Likud is compassion and carrying for the weak… But Likud is no longer there, it has strayed from the path. In recent years Likud’s social banner has been dismantled… for the sake of political-security gains.
And while the assumption should be that he wouldn’t end the occupation in his first term, it’s not an impossibility for all time, like it is with Netanyahu and Bennett. Kahlon is guaranteed to have sincere advocates of a two-state solution high on his party list; among his potential running mates are ex-Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin, former Mossad head Meir Dagan and economist Prof. Manuel Trajtenberg. Plus, if elected, he would very likely take Isaac Herzog’s Labor, Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah and/or Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid into the government with him. He could turn serious about a peace deal, and if he were prime minister, there would be tremendous pressure from various quarters for him to do so. New elections and new governments come along remarkably often in Israel; a second Kahlon government could look very different from a first one.
We have to get rid of Netanyahu. The rotting of this country and the dying of hope must be stopped and reversed. With the right wing so powerful in Israel today, the only candidate who at this point has a chance to pull it off is Kahlon.
He could flop in the campaign, or he could do well but not well enough to challenge Netanyahu and Bennett for the leadership. In that case, I’ll vote Meretz and my friend from work will vote Hadash. But if Kahlon is in contention for the prime ministership on election day, I think there will be a massive shift of voters to his party. Israelis want change, they don’t want Netanyahu anymore, they don’t want the coldness, hostility and stagnation they now associate with him. Kahlon has the most winning smile in Israeli politics, he’s not arrogant, and his image is of a doer, not a demagogue. The left-center-Arab parties can’t win the election, but he can, and if he does, it will be a huge improvement over the horror show we’ve got. As for the chance of him ending the occupation, I’ll quote from Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem”:
Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There’s a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.