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Israeli Candidate Made A Name For Himself By Slashing Cellphone Rates


Now to Egypt's neighbor, Israel, where elections are set for next month. We hear a lot about security issues in Israeli campaigns, but the economy is also important to voters - enter candidate Moshe Kahlon. He heads a party that's vying for a block in parliament. NPR's Emily Harris in Jerusalem sent this profile of Kahlon.

EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: Israeli politician Moshe Kahlon is most famous for one thing. As minister of communications a few years ago, he opened up the cell phone market to competition and lowered everybody's bills.

LEAH ABUTBUL: First, I paid less.

HARRIS: That's Kahlon's youngest sister, Leah Abutbul. She's family, so it might not be surprising that she's one of Kahlon's fans. But when cell phone bills dropped, she says people would stop her and tell her how happy they were.

ABUTBUL: (Through interpreter) Everybody - and I meet a lot of different people - would show me their cell phones and say, tell him thank you for me. For this election, someone said he should call his party, we feel it in our pockets.

HARRIS: Kahlon's parents came to Israel from Libya. He grew up with six siblings in a low-income neighborhood in the coastal town of Hadera. The kids shared beds until their parents could enclose a balcony or divide a room for more private space. That neighborhood is still working class, although luxury apartments are rising on its edge. At a town playground, young mom Julie Angor, a Jewish immigrant from Turkey, says she'll vote for the first time in this election, but not for Kahlon.

JULIE ANGOR: (Through interpreter) He's a worthy candidate, but I think he can't yet handle security issues. He's good at dealing with the cell phone companies, but not against powers like Iran.

HARRIS: With his campaign song blasting, Kahlon focused on the economy during a recent Tel Aviv market visit.

MOSHE KAHLON: (Speaking Hebrew).

HARRIS: He shook hands, grinned and ate a lot. Kahlon had already sampled hummus and meatballs by the time he stopped for a burika, a kind of crepe filled with egg and potato then deep-fried. The owner gave Kahlon 30 percent off.

KOBI: My name is Kobi - nickname, Koburika. I like Moshe Kahlon because me and him from the same region - from Tripoli, Libya. And this food, burika, is from Triopli, Libya.

HARRIS: Kobi, or Koburika, wants Kahlon to repeat his cell phone success in other sectors. And that is just what Kahlon is promising. With a flourish for the cameras, he signed a campaign pledge that he would take on entrenched Israeli industries.

KAHLON: (Through interpreter) We are fighting the food monopoly to lower food prices, the bank monopoly to lower banking fees, the housing monopoly to lower the cost of housing.

HARRIS: Former ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren, is a candidate on Kahlon's ticket. He says the party, Kulanu, see threats to Israel not only from Iran or Hezbollah.

MICHAEL OREN: The immediate threat is not being able to make a living. Kids have left Israel because they can't make a living here. They serve in the Army. They're willing to go on with their reserve duty. They're willing to put up with a war every couple of years. What they're not willing to put up with is the indignity of not being able to support themselves.

HARRIS: Besides his cell phone success, one other thing is widely said about Moshe Kahlon. Despite serving in Netanyahu's cabinet, he's believed to not like the prime minister very much. He left the Likud party Netanyahu heads last fall to form his own. But Hebrew University professor Menachem Hofnung says Kahlon's history with Likud may help him.

MENACHEM HOFNUNG: He declared himself as a real Likud, and many people, even within the Likud, they can't stand Netanyahu.

HARRIS: Kahlon's popularity has fallen since early polls. But Hofnug says, as a centrist politician in a coalition system, even a small win could give him a pivotal role in forming Israel's next government. Emily Harris, NPR News, Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

International Correspondent Emily Harris is based in Jerusalem as part of NPR's Mideast team. Her post covers news related to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. She began this role in March of 2013.