One of those cardinal rules in western world politics is if you want to win an election to lead your country you must win the center. In a two-party system that usually means politicians will go to either extreme to win a primary and will walk-it-back to the center to win the general election. In a multi-party system, such as Israel, it is much easier. You can simply create your own party, label yourself as center, and skip the primary.
There is an unofficial rule in Israeli politics that to be a serious Prime Minister candidate you must have first served in one of the top three ministries: Defense, Foreign or Finance. There is a good argument for this unofficial rule since the only exceptions are the first Prime Minister and Defense Minister David Ben-Gurion and the long-time Opposition Leader Menachem Begin.
Sharett, Meir, Shamir and Barak were all Foreign Ministers before they became Prime Minister. Eshkol and Olmert were first Finance Ministers. Peres was a Defense Minister before Prime Minister. Sharon had served previously as both Defense and Foreign. Rabin inherited his first term from Meir, but had Defense Ministry experience before he won an elected term. Netanyahu had experience as Deputy Foreign Minister before winning his first election and had previous Foreign and Finance Minister experience before he won his second.
This week two public polls were released. One measured public opinion on Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party. The other poll offered a fictional scenario poll in which a group of centrist figures would win 23 seats to 22 for the Likud. This fictional poll is the first one published that does not have Likud in first place so the pundits have been having a field day with it. The list, which was read out in a random order without naming the leader of the list, would include the unlikely trio of Netanyahu’s former Likud #2s Kahlon and Gideon Sa’ar, along with former IDF COS Gabi Ashkenazi.
One poll was discouraging for Kahlon’s future, and the second poll was promising for him.
Moshe Kahlon first ran for Knesset for Likud in 1999 and was placed #38 on the Likud Knesset list that won 19 seats under Benjamin Netanyahu. After Ariel Sharon defeated Ehud Barak in 2001 Kahlon was appointed to a senior position in hardline-Minister Uzi Landau’s Homeland Security Ministry. Kahlon improved to #25 for the 2003 Likud list led by Prime Minister Sharon that would win 38 seats and Kahlon was elected to the Knesset in a rookie class that would produce two future Likud #2s Gideon Sa’ar and Gilad Erdan. Kahlon sided with Landau and became one of the “Likud rebel MKs” against Ariel Sharon and his disengagement plan. Kahlon was considered a hawk and frequently expressed his opposition to a Palestinian State. Kahlon was the surprise of the 2006 Likud primary and received first place. For the 2006 Election Kahlon was #3 on the Likud Knesset list behind the reserved spots for Benjamin Netanyahu and Silvan Shalom. Netanyahu appointed Kahlon as Chairman of the powerful Likud Central Committee, and Kahlon won re-election to the important post in 2008. During his second term Kahlon was appointed Knesset Economy Committee Chairman, the highest position given to the opposition Likud by the Olmert government. Many of his internal rivals struck political deals to weaken him and Kahlon dropped in the next primaries to fifth place and was #6 on the 2009 Likud Knesset list that won 27 seats and returned Benjamin Netanyahu to the Prime Minister’s Office. Netanyahu handed his ally Kahlon the Communications portfolio and later on gave him a second portfolio, the Labor and Welfare Ministry, after Isaac Herzog resigned the post.
Kahlon was considered very popular in public opinion polls, frequently receiving the top mark among all ministers thanks to his cellphone reform, yet he decided to take a break from politics and not run in the 2013 election. Suddenly rumors spread that Kahlon was considering running on a new list for 2013 and various scenario polls conducted by the television stations increased speculation. After an initial silence, Kahlon announced he was not running on any list in 2013 and he appeared in Likud TV commercials. However, already before the 2013 election cycle was finished, there were rumors that Kahlon was preparing himself for the next cycle to run at the head of a new center party, similarly to what Lapid had just done.
Kahlon wanted to be a Prime Minister candidate, and he made the calculation that Netanyahu was not going to give him one of the top three ministries unless he formed his own party. This was reinforced when the new center party Yesh Atid won 19 seats out of nowhere and Lapid received the Finance Ministry. Sa’ar, Likud’s #2 for the second straight election was actually demoted from Education to the Interior Ministry. Kahlon was ahead of Sa’ar and Erdan, his 2003 Likud classmates, in realizing the only way to really force Netanyahu’s hand was to create his own party and be a coalition partner capable of collapsing the government.
There is no long-term future for “center” parties. Some of these parties last a term and others have lasted as many as three. It is the same problem each time. The party is centered (pun intended) on one popular individual and after that individual leaves the party collapses. There are other problems of course. The MKs of center parties are usually chosen by the popular individual, instead of democratic primaries, and with that kind of power the popular individual usually leads to selecting unthreatening personalities that frequently turn out to be completely clueless and/or useless lawmakers. These MKs are subject to turning on their former boss and examining options to jump to another party if their current party is crashing in the polls. Another problem is that when it comes to voting on legislation there is no “center button”, there is a decision that must be made, for or against. In Israel events change rapidly, and it is almost impossible to stay in the center without constant flip-flopping, and that usually leads to untrustworthy and unfavorable numbers that prevent you from doing any long-term planning.
People look at Kadima when they say that the center can maintain long-term success. After all Kadima was represented in Knesset for close to ten years through three elections and by three different leaders. Ehud Olmert led the center party Kadima to 29 seats in 2006 and became the first centrist Prime Minister. Of course it was Ariel Sharon’s party that Olmert inherited. Kadima’s next leader Tzipi Livni failed to maintain Olmert’s coalition, and couldn’t create a new one afterwards either, despite winning Phase 1 in the 2009 election with 28 seats. The thing is that Livni’s Kadima was not Olmert’s Kadima, not really. There was a lot of turnover, a lot of new faces and MK Ze’ev Elkin decided that he’d rather move to the Likud than remain in a Livni-led Kadima. When Shaul Mofaz won the Kadima leadership it changed the party again. Kadima fell from 28 seats to two. Of course to be fair Mofaz’s Kadima wasn’t Livni’s Kadima either. Livni in fact had seven Kadima MKs break off and create a new party for her. Other Kadima MK refugees ran to the Likud and a few ran in the Labor Party primaries. One Kadima MK even tried to run as part of an Arab list.
After raising the electoral threshold to 3.25% the 20th Knesset tied a record for electing just ten lists. I’ve gone on record predicting that the next Knesset will most likely elect a single-digit number of lists for the first time as the Israeli political landscape in my opinion consolidates instead of splits. This might be the first Knesset term in a while where there is no “new white knight savior” candidate. Instead we might have a new alliance list that is made up of many personalities and parties that all want to capture the center vote without actually having to be in the center.
Kahlon’s numbers are dropping. He has not received double digits in any poll conducted since he joined the coalition. Housing prices are not going down, he has not taken on the banks as promised, his flip-flop on the natural gas deal has hurt his credibility, and he is perceived by many as the weak ineffective fig leaf of the coalition. The good news for Kahlon is that he still owns ten seats, he is sitting in the prestigious Finance Ministry, and he is the senior coalition partner of the government. Kahlon will have time to see his current reforms through after agreeing to a two-year-budget for 2017 and 2018.
As for his future, the likelihood that Kahlon runs alone in the next election is small. The Kulanu Party is simply not conducting themselves as a party that is seeking re-election. Kulanu is completely absent in the field and seems to be going through the motions instead of putting down roots.
Kahlon will probably do what previous center party leaders have done before him – try to make a deal. Kahlon will no doubt try to get the deal Tzipi Livni made where Herzog appointed her to #2 on a joint list where she was allowed to keep her own independent party and appoint her own people. Despite the current scenario poll, a Livni-type deal is something that today would only be worthwhile for Kahlon if it came from Netanyahu or Lapid. In fact, Kahlon negotiated possible joint lists with both of them before the previous election but realized he would have more power long-term if he ran with his own party now and sold high when he has the party funding of a ten-seat-party that didn’t spend much money during the previous term. Most of the Kulanu MKs would prefer Likud to Yesh Atid and returning to the Likud makes more sense for Kahlon as long as Netanyahu and his allies remain strong in polling. Netanyahu has already made a few deals to place a different party head at #2 and run on a joint list, most recently in the 2013 election that Kahlon decided to sit out. Even if Kahlon does prefer Lapid, Netanyahu is older than Lapid, and that is a factor for anyone who wants to be Prime Minister one day.
What about our weekend scenario poll? Kahlon has good relations with Sa’ar, and he views him as an ideal #2. However, if Sa’ar wouldn’t agree to be Netanyahu’s #2, why would he agree to be Kahlon’s? Ashkenazi, a former IDF COS, does not seem like a #2 type of player. Sa’ar is more popular than Kahlon, but Kahlon won’t agree to hand his party over to someone else. Attaching Sa’ar’s name to scenario polls makes for interesting conversation, but he will most likely wait for the next Likud leadership election or, the less likely option, start his own party as Kahlon did before him.
Our scenario poll does teach us that Lapid loses his standing the minute there is a better perceived alternative to Netanyahu. If Lapid had convinced Livni or Kahlon to be his #2 in the previous election he would most likely be the leader of the second largest list and the official Opposition Leader right now. Lapid is already inheriting Kulanu and Zionist Union voters, but he might lose them if he doesn’t include their leaders. As Herzog’s grip weakens the Zionist Union MKs are becoming increasingly independent and a chunk of them might break off and join a new center alliance with or without Herzog.
So, we have a group of politicians who are looking to the center for their political survival, and Kahlon is an important key for many of them. Many of Kahlon’s opponents know there is likely a scenario where they will need him and his ten seats of party funding to ensure their survival. It is a real dilemma for these figures if they should publicly attack Kahlon or not. If you attack Kahlon too much you might be sending him straight into the hands of Netanyahu. If you don’t attack him enough he might use you as a bargaining chip before jumping into Netanyahu’s arms anyways. For now the tactic some are using is attacking the Kulanu Party instead of Kahlon directly.
There probably is no future for the Kulanu Party, but there is a future for Moshe Kahlon.