In December 2014, toward the elections to the 20th Knesset, Moshe Kahlon decided to form his own party – Kulanu – after it became clear to him that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was determined to place sticks in the wheels of any potential heir within the Likud. Formally he expressed his disappointment with the fact that Netanyahu had decided to more or less ignore the social protests of the summer of 2011, and to take a sharp turn to the illiberal Right.
Those of us from the liberal/social-democratic Left, who look on with deep concern at developments in the Likud, especially the almost total obliteration of the liberal-right elements within it, growing vulgarization and brutalization of the conduct of some of its senior members, and worrying signs of a dictatorial state of mind and mannerisms on the part of Netanyahu himself – had high hopes that Kahlon might create a serious alternative for secular and traditional right-wingers who no longer felt at home in the new Likud. However, our hopes were thwarted.
The election results were disappointing to Kulanu, which received only 10 Knesset seats. Had the results enabled Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog to form a government, it was reported that Kahlon would have been willing to join him. However it was Netanyahu who once again formed a government, and in this extreme right-wing/religious government Kahlon assumed the role of defender of the rule of law in general and the Supreme Court in particular, and in addition committed to reducing the cost of living in general and that of housing in particular.
Though I have no doubt that the social and economic welfare of the Israeli population are close to Kahlon’s heart, and that his choice of the Finance Ministry was motivated largely by his belief that from there he would be able to bring down the cost of housing, I never really believed that he had a chance to achieve his goal, simply because he seems to believe that one can stand up to the vested interests of the commercial monopolies and of the construction industry by means of neoliberal economic tools.
As a believer in the mixed economy that combines a free market with determined government action where the free market fails (for whatever reason) I have never had any doubt that the government must exercise an iron fist against all those who either want to prevent real free competition (from kashrut to unhindered imports) and take direct action within the market on such issues as social housing.
Nevertheless, Kulanu was the only member of the coalition to put up at least a semblance of a fight when the natural gas agreement, which benefited tycoons much more than the state and its citizens, was up for the vote in the government. Kahlon declared himself to be in a state of “conflict of interest” and was thus able to chicken out, and Avi Gabbay, who was environment minister on behalf of Kulanu at the time, was the only minister to vote against.
On the issue of defending the rule of law, and efforts to block anti-democratic moves and legislative initiatives by other members of the coalition, Kulanu has undoubtedly done its best, and has managed to block some highly undesirable changes in our modus operandi and law book, such as thwarting efforts to weaken the state comptroller, or preventing Netanyahu from ensuring the stillbirth of the new public broadcasting corporation.
However, as was proven last week on the issue of the recommendations bill, since Kahlon is not willing to risk elections (in which Kulanu is predicted to lose between half to a third of its current Knesset seats), and since threatening early elections is one of coalition chairman MK David Bitan’s main means to ensure coalition discipline in Netanyahu’s service, Kahlon’s ended up backing down from his reservations about the bill.
Kahlon now claims that he was always in favor of preventing the Israel Police from publishing recommendations after completing investigations in cases in which there is suspicion of criminal offenses. However, his initial objections to the bill were based on its being tailored for Netanyahu, and that it is to apply retroactively, and he didn’t really manage to change these two aspects of the proposed law, despite his claims to the contrary. How this affair will end is yet to be seen.
Though I never had any illusions that Kahlon was anything other than a staunch right-winger with a pleasant disposition and winning smile, I am extremely disappointed that he has joined the choir of Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid and those on the Right who are actively engaged in delegitimizing the political Left these days. The populist trend, encouraged by the prime minster and blindly accepted by the less articulate Right, of presenting the Left as a bunch of unpatriotic traitors rather than as a legitimate political force honestly concerned with the welfare of the country in an era of major political and security challenges, and which considers the solutions offered by the Right to be irresponsible at best, and dangerous to the survival of the Jewish state at worst, is a dangerous one.
Unfortunately, Kahlon does not miss an opportunity to declare that he will not join a government led by the Labor Party because it is “Left,” even though before the elections to the 20th Knesset he didn’t reject the option of joining a government led by Isaac Herzog, and the fact that today the Labor Party is being led by Kahlon’s ideological twin – Avi Gabbay – who left Kulanu because he disagreed with Kahlon over tactics and against the background of personal ambition rather than substance and principles.
One can understand that Kahlon is concerned about the predictions of the opinion polls, and is thus inclined to wink to the right-wing populists. However, I somehow doubt this will help him in the polls when new elections are finally called. I also doubt that if the Center/Left manages to emerge from the next elections with a blocking bloc – which at the moment does not seem far-fetched – Kahlon will refuse to join a Center/Left government together with one or two of the religious parties. Time will tell.