January 15, 2015 / 7:08 PM / in 3 years

Israeli market reformer launches wild-card election bid

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - An ex-Israeli cabinet minister known for spurring market reform launched a new party on Thursday to run in the March 17 election, a wild-card bid seen as potentially helping Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu return to power.

Israel's President Reuven Rivlin (R) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attend the joint funeral of Yohan Cohen, Yoav Hattab, Philippe Braham and Francois-Michel Saada, four French Jews killed in an attack on a Paris kosher grocery, in Jerusalem January 13, 2015. REUTERS/Jim Hollander/Pool

Moshe Kahlon, 54, the son of hardscrabble Libyan immigrants, hopes to revitalise his political career based on the popularity he enjoyed as a communications minister who promoted competition and thereby slashed mobile telephone prices.

He broke ranks with Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party over economic policy, an issue that has dogged Israeli politics since unprecedented social protests in 2011, and opted to sit out the last election in 2013.

Kahlon is closer to Netanyahu on security issues -- they both blame Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for the breakdown in peace diplomacy last year -- and calls himself a “Likudnik” in speeches, hinting at how he and Netanyahu could easily partner in any future coalition government.

Polls forecast Kahlon’s party winning between nine and 12 seats on March 17, enough to put it in a kingmaker position to decide whether Netanyahu wins a fourth term against liberal Labour party leader Isaac Herzog.

The center-left Labour party has a slight edge over Likud in the polls but neither - as in previous elections - can garner a governable majority, while Netanyahu is seen as mustering more potential political allies to build a viable coalition.

Kahlon’s main rival in the smaller party category, jostling for economic policy-minded voters, is the centrist Yesh Atid party headed by former finance minister Yair Lapid. Netanyahu dismissed Lapid two months ago, triggering a coalition crisis that brought about the snap election.

Kahlon has named his party “Koolanu”, which is Hebrew for “all of us.” It aims to slash skyrocketing housing costs and take other steps to help disadvantaged Israelis, many of whom are immigrants from Arab and Asian lands long under-represented in the Jewish state’s upper echelons.

An attorney by profession, Kahlon grew up as one of seven siblings whose father was a construction worker, a past he often cites as underscoring his preoccupation with economic issues.

“Insufferable economic gaps put Israel at risk. A country that is weak from within will also be weak from without. Therefore our role is to strengthen Israel from within,” Kahlon said earlier this month.

His leading party candidates presented on Thursday at a televised gathering on a kibbutz (collective farm) included retired army general Yoav Galant and Michael Oren, a former ambassador to Washington under an earlier Netanyahu-led government.

Editing by Mark Heinrich

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