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'It’s All About Numbers': Netanyahu's Party 'Forged Endorsement' From Israel's New Kingmaker

As Israelis go to the polls, it has been reported that the Likud party has been banned from distributing a falsified recording of Kulanu leader Moshe Kahlon endorsing Netanyahu for prime minister.

by Harriet Salem
Mar 17 2015, 10:09am

Photo via Reuters

Out on the campaign trail, silver-haired Moshe Kahlon, a popular politician who defected from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party in 2013, cut an impressive and confident figure as he talked to voters about their economic concerns. Although his fledgling Kulanu party is only polling at around nine seats, Kahlon has become such a powerful kingmaker in the race to be Israel's next prime minister that Netanjahu's party has reportedly forged a recording of him pledging his support.

A Kulanu spokesman told the Jerusalem Post today — just as Israelis prepared to vote in a general election — that Netanyahu's Likud party admitted that they had forged a recording of Kahlon promising to support Netanyahu, and had distributed the recording to potential voters. The spokesman said the distribution was only stopped after the intervention of Central Elections Committee Judge Salim Joubran.

"We are pleased that Judge Joubran stopped the Likud from continuing to distribute this untruthful recording," the party said. "It is sad that the Likud party, in a moment of desperation, chooses to deceive the public."

Kulanu's allegiance might be the decisive factor in a close run race for the Israeli prime ministership. Final polls, released on Friday, showed little daylight between the two major parties. While the center-left Zionist Union — a coalition of the Hatnuah and Labor parties — leads Netanyahu's center-right Likud party by around two to four seats, being the largest single-party doesn't necessarily guarantee victory in Israel, where forming a government is a game of coalition building.

Indeed, in Israel no party has ever managed to secure an outright majority, and the eventual prime minister must be able to pull together a block that exceeds 61 of the 120 seats in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, in order to govern.

Related: Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu disavows two-state solution to woo far-right voters. Read more here.

This election, with both the leading parties expected to gain less than 30 seats, winning the support of smaller parties will be more important than ever. "Every mandate in this contest counts," pollster and Director of Smith Consultancy Rafi Smith told VICE News. "The gap between the two major parties is very close. It's a numbers game," he added.

A Jew of Sephardic descent, Kahlon has stolen many votes from Likud's traditional support base, the Mizrahim — Jews of Middle Eastern background. His centrist platform focused on financial and social issues has also drawn in those angered by Netanyahu's focus on security at the expense of economic issues.

Speaking at an event on Sunday, the Kulanu leader declared that he had never met a young Israeli who had left the country because of the Islamic State or Iran, but he had met plenty who had gone because high house prices and cost of living had made them "lose hope."

Kahlon is also seen as reliable and having a proven track record. During his stint as the communications minister under Netanyahu, he won the admiration of Israelis for leaning on cellphone networks to slash the price of their services.

But more important than all of this is that he hasn't declared allegiance in the contest to form government. With a near even split between parties sympathetic to the "right" and "left" ahead of Tuesday's election, Kahlon's Kulanu is the largest party to have not yet declared which horse it will back after vote counting is finished on Wednesday.

His potential to influence the outcome of the vote, and indeed the direction of Israeli politics for the next four years has not passed unnoticed. In a bid to win back the former Likudite, Netanyahu has publicly said he will give Kahlon the position of finance minister if he is returned as prime minister.

But the Kulanu leader has not risen to the bait, instead calling the offer "flattering" but "predictable spin." Speaking to Israeli i24 television on Monday, Kahlon said he was committed to a "social government that will really and genuinely tackle social issues" but also left the door open to Likud if they win enough votes. "We are in the pay of the public. Anyone who serves their agenda we will go with," he added.

"There are a lot of possibilities," Omri Arush, spokesperson for the party told VICE News. "In the end it all depends on numbers."

Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem