The Arabic-Speaker Who Might One Day Lead Israel
As the sun sets over the town of Migdal Haemek, just outside Nazareth in northern Israel, a white Nissan pulls up to a community center. A slim, neatly dressed man with graying hair steps out of the car, and a dozen people surge forward to take selfies and get a closer look. Inside, the stage is set for a gathering to thank the visitor, Israeli Minister of Finance Moshe Kahlon, for helping the hardscrabble town of 28,000. “And now, in honor of the prime min—” says Eli Barda, the town’s mayor. “Wait, I’m going to get in trouble here. In honor of the … minister.”
It was a slip, but one that resonates in Israel these days. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces three corruption probes, and his government almost collapsed in early March in a tiff over the budget. With his future looking shakier than ever, the country’s political class has begun to quietly seek a successor. Kahlon is among a handful of names that rises to the top of the list. “I don’t dream, I’m realistic,” he says in his Tel Aviv office a few days after the Migdal Haemek event. “Being prime minister is difficult and carries a lot of responsibility,” says Kahlon, the 57-year-old son of poor immigrants from Libya. “But I see myself as capable of any job.”
The hardest part of leading Israel, of course, is dealing with the Palestinians, and in that Kahlon’s heritage—he grew up speaking Arabic and Hebrew at home—gives him an advantage. At a meeting last year with Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, an aide warned Hamdallah in Arabic to be wary of the Israeli finance minister. Kahlon turned around, smiled, and gently suggested in the Arabic he learned from his parents that the aide might consider being more respectful. The room erupted in laughter, and now Kahlon is greeted with kisses and slaps on the back when he visits the West Bank.