While outgoing Communications and Welfare and Social Services Minister Moshe Kahlon is mulling the establishment of a new party under his leadership, his fellow Likud members are incensed. "If he quits [Likud], it would be a betrayal," said one Likud minister on Wednesday.
Speculation arose that Kahlon, one of the most popular ministers in the government, might strike out on his own when a poll emerged on Wednesday suggesting that a Kahlon-led party could win an impressive 20 Knesset seats in the coming election. This came only weeks after Kahlon announced that he would not by vying for a seat on the Likud Knesset list in the coming party primary and would be taking time off from politics.
The general sense among Likud members was that Kahlon would announce the establishment of a new party in the near future, though he may wait for the results of an independent poll that he has commissioned.
Kahlon said this week that he was "mentally ready" to establish a new, socially driven party, Channel 2 reported.
"My decision has been made," Kahlon reportedly told his associates, who said the outgoing minister was confident of his prospects on an independent path. He is only "testing the waters," his associates said, as reported in Yedioth Ahronoth.
"I am at peace with my decision and only want to make sure that it is the right political move," Kahlon reportedly told a confidant.
However, another close confidant, Shimon Sussan, insisted that Kahlon had not yet decided whether he would run independently. Sussan told Army Radio on Thursday that "Kahlon has not decided anything yet."
"I think that his decision remains as it was two weeks ago," Sussan said, referring to Kahlon's decision to take time off. "Sometimes a leader needs to make decisions, even if they are difficult to make and even if the media will say that it is a flip-flop, which, in his case, isn't true. He has other considerations."
Likud members, though angry, were careful not to criticize the outgoing minister, since there was still a possibility he might remain in the party. But some questions have been raised as to whether a new party under Kahlon would siphon votes away from Likud. "His vision was apparently clouded by the poll," said one senior Likud minister. "Even though he announced that he was taking time off from politics, he decided to cut short his time off."
Another Likud MK said, "If Kahlon goes ahead with this, he will be even more of a pathetic flip-flopper than [Kadima Chairman] Shaul Mofaz. After all, just this week he said that he would stay in Likud." In 2005, speaking about Likud, Mofaz famously said, "You don't leave a home," days before defecting to join Kadima.
According to Kahlon's close associates, in an effort to prevent the popular minister from resigning, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had offered him the position of finance minister should Likud remain in power (which polls predict with near certainty), but to no avail. Kahlon's camp did not deny the rumors that he was planning to establish a new, independent party. According to sources close to Kahlon, the new party would not take votes away from Likud, but from Labor, Kadima and Yesh Atid (There is a Future), and would be a natural partner for a coalition led by the merged Likud-Yisrael Beytenu party.
Netanyahu, currently in France on an official visit, addressed the reports on Wednesday, saying, "I am glad that here, at a press conference with the president of France, you are asking me about Moshe Kahlon. He expressly told me, and the public, that he would remain in Likud. I believe that he will remain in Likud."
In one possible scenario, Kahlon may establish a new party on the foundations of Am Shalem (Whole Nation), the party established by MK Haim Amsallem (formerly of Shas). They would be joined by Likud MK Carmel Shama Hacohen.
Likud officials have speculated that Kahlon, who has recently voiced criticism against Netanyahu behind closed doors, realized that he could not return to a position of power within the Likud now that it has merged with Yisrael Beytenu, and decided to strike out on his own. There was further speculation that Kahlon was planning to cross over to the private sector, to work for businessman Kobi Maimon for a monthly salary of 100,000 shekels ($26,000). Kahlon has denied the allegation.
Meanwhile, Shama Hacohen told Israel Radio Thursday that he felt the prime minister should convene a meeting with Kahlon as soon as he returned from France, to try to convince him to remain in Likud. Shama Hacohen described Kahlon as an asset to the party, adding that his popularity crossed party lines.
"If Likud wants to survive, we have to bring back Kahlon and stop criticizing him from within [the party]," he said.
If Kahlon does in fact plan to form a new party, he must immediately resign from all Likud responsibilities, Shama Hacohen said.