Israel Pulse

Has Israel's finance minister lost his fans?

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Article Summary
Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon's supporters are disappointed, as they believed he would fight for the rule of law and the new public broadcasting corporation but now see him abandoning political battles that might mark him as a leftist, guided primarily by political survival.

Two highly publicized demonstrations took place in less than one mid-November week outside the new apartment block in Haifa, where Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon lives. The homes of Israel’s finance ministers have always been a popular target for demonstrations, and the current one is no exception. What distinguishes Kahlon is that these demonstrations do not focus on budgetary or economic issues. They are about the rule of law (Kahlon is accused of not defending it) and about the prime minister’s predatory actions concerning the media (that Kahlon now seems to be going along with).

On the evening of Nov. 15, dozens of would-be employees of the new public broadcasting corporation gathered outside Kahlon's home. They came to protest him stepping back from his promise to protect them from Netanyahu’s efforts to shut down the nascent corporation. The staff got the news that afternoon, while the finance minister attended a journalism conference in Eilat. While speaking on a panel, he announced that public broadcasting could be maintained through the old Israel Broadcasting Authority, which until now was slated for closure.

The senior members of the corporation and the hundreds recruited to staff it now face an uncertain future. For them, Kahlon’s statement was an enormous blow. Through his media appearances until then and hints he relayed through his inner circle, Kahlon delivered the unequivocal message that he would back them against Netanyahu. On Oct. 31, only two weeks earlier, he announced that he did not plan to give in to Netanyahu on this issue, and if necessary, he would veto the elimination of the new corporation. In private conversations, he spoke out even more vigorously, leading people to believe that he had been firm with Netanyahu in a private meeting. Kahlon had supposedly said that he would have no problem bringing down the coalition over this issue.

Several days passed, and Kahlon proved yet again that he acts, first and foremost, on behalf of his personal political interests. In this particular case, the last thing the Kulanu chair needs is to see the government fall apart over something that was never one of his top priorities. Furthermore, the prime minister has succeeded in making the public broadcasting corporation a divisive issue between left and right. In other words, if Kahlon challenged Netanyahu over it, he would be marked publicly as a leftist. As a former member of the Likud whose hardcore supporters identify with the right, Kahlon realized that the issue could potentially cause significant damage to his political future.

All of this happened before the drama surrounding the regularization law. That law, promoted by Naftali Bennett, the chairman of HaBayit HaYehudi, is intended to whitewash illegal outposts built on land owned by Palestinians (and prevent the evacuation of the West Bank settlement of Amona). Netanyahu found himself trapped between a Supreme Court ruling requiring the government to evacuate the Amona outpost despite widespread opposition on the right, and Bennett’s aggressive efforts to pass a law circumventing the Supreme Court’s ruling, despite the opposition of the state attorney general.

Once again, Kahlon found himself in the position of the minister expected to defend the rule of law in the government. As someone who once condemned coalition efforts to weaken the courts and who frequently spoke out about the importance of maintaining an independent judiciary, Kahlon seemed like the right man for the job.

While the Likud’s ministers aligned themselves with Bennett and supported the regularization law, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, the chairman of Yisrael Beitenu, acted in coordination with Netanyahu to prevent the proposed law from being put up for a vote. The media automatically listed Kahlon’s Kulanu faction as being opposed to the law, but the finance minister surprised everyone by zigzagging over the issue. On Nov. 16, Kulanu’s Knesset members voted in support of the law, which passed a preliminary reading in the Knesset.

Kahlon became the target of sharp criticism from supporters of the rule of law, the kind reserved for politicians for whom they had high expectations but who ultimately disappointed them. The members of Kulanu explained that they only supported the law after Netanyahu promised them that it would not progress any further (that it wouldn’t make it to second and third Knesset hearings). They explained that Kahlon collaborated with Bennett to avoid conflicts with him when the state budget comes up for approval in the coming weeks.

For these reasons, residents of Amona have been maintaining a vigil outside the finance minister’s home in Haifa since the night of Nov. 19. They are trying to pressure him to support the law until it passes its second and third readings. In this case, too, Kahlon has acted in line with his own narrow political interests. Had he prevented the law from being passed at the preliminary vote, he would have been marked as a collaborator with the left, and that could have dire consequences for him in the next election.

So, what exactly is happening to the star of the last elections, the Robin Hood of the lower classes and of the social protests? Why is he crashing in the polls and disappointing more and more people?

Kahlon emerged as an authentic social leader following the social protests. After the 2015 election, he showed considerable political skill in leveraging his 10 Knesset seats, making him the most powerful person in the Netanyahu coalition, without whom there would be no government.

A search for explanations for his current behavior should start with Kahlon’s decision to choose Netanyahu as his candidate to form a new government after the last election. He had been expected by analysts to choose Zionist Camp leader Isaac Herzog.

After joining the right-wing government, Kahlon continued to say that he was working to bring the Zionist Camp into the government. The fact is, however, that he didn’t invest much effort into that. He certainly did not make his joining the Netanyahu government conditional on the inclusion of the Zionist Camp.

Despite all that, there were those who continued to see him as the moderate force in the government, and as someone who would defend freedom of expression and the rule of law. Like a sophisticated and charismatic peddler of illusions, he managed to portray himself as the person who would prevent Netanyahu from making any rash moves, although there was no reason for anyone to believe that. Anyone who did refused to see the simple truth: Kahlon was and remains a member of the right. It's more important to him than the rule of law or the media market to reach the next election with achievements as finance minister, such as lowering the cost of living or resolving the housing crisis. To make them, he needs more time in the government. That is why he will not bring the current government down. Apart from more time as minister, nothing else really matters to him at all.

Found in: social justice movement, public broadcasting, moshe kahlon, kulanu party, israeli politics, benjamin netanyahu

Mazal Mualem is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse and formerly the senior political correspondent for Maariv and Haaretz. She also presents a weekly TV show covering social issues on the Knesset channel. On Twitter: @mazalm3

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