Countdown to April 9Far-fetched scenario shows pro-pot leader's pivotal role

Enjoying his election kingmaker potential, Feiglin may recommend himself for PM

Head of ultra-nationalist, libertarian Zehut could hold keys to power for Gantz or Netanyahu; Zehut party source says neither may be able to accede to his demands

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Zehut party leader Moshe Feiglin is seen in Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda market, during a campaign stop on April 4, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Zehut party leader Moshe Feiglin is seen in Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda market, during a campaign stop on April 4, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Zehut party leader Moshe Feiglin will consider recommending himself to be prime minister after this week’s election, a party source told The Times of Israel on Sunday night, a move that could potentially shake up Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s perceived edge in the post-vote coalition calculation.

With Feiglin insisting that he does not have a preference between Netanyahu and his main rival, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, as Israel’s next premier, Feiglin’s Zehut party could emerge as a kingmaker in a tightly contested race.

The Zehut source said that both Netanyahu and Gantz were options, but that no decision had been made yet, as neither may be able to agree to the party’s demands. Hence, the source said, Feiglin was considering recommending himself.

The scenario of Feiglin becoming prime minister is beyond far-fetched, but the fact that his own party is now raising it serves to underline the kingmaker role Feiglin may be able to play, and the bargaining power he could have, if survey predictions about the composition of the next Knesset prove accurate.

Zehut is heading for five to seven seats in the Knesset, according to recent polls. Feiglin, an ultra-nationalist, who was a Likud MK from 2013-2015, and who last week said he wants to build the Third Temple right away, is proving the surprise hit of the election campaign, with his flagship issue being the legalization of cannabis.

Once the Knesset seats are allocated after Tuesday’s elections, senior figures in the parties that have made it into the Knesset will be called in by President Reuven Rivlin to tell him whom they recommend he should charge with building a coalition. Surveys in recent weeks have indicated that Netanyahu would get the recommendations of a majority of the elected MKs, but Feiglin’s stance could change that equation.

Feiglin, whose party has been described as “ultra-nationalist libertarian,” has said he will insist on receiving the Finance Ministry if he is to join the next government.

Channel 12 reported Sunday night that Feiglin will not commit to supporting either Netanyahu or Gantz, but will choose between them, after negotiating with both, and then tell Rivlin of his preference. In a sense, if so, he would be reversing the normal chain of events by seeking to negotiate his coalition terms before the president has even charged a candidate with forming a coalition.

Feiglin said Friday that he does not have a preference between Netanyahu and Gantz as Israel’s next prime minister. “I am not motivated by anger or vindictiveness; neither Gantz nor Netanyahu interest me,” he told Radio 103FM, indicating that he was willing to work with either in a future government.

“If they offer [something], they’ll get [something] in return,” he said in the interview. “If they don’t offer anything, they won’t get anything in return.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with then-Likud MK Moshe Feiglin, at the Knesset, July 2, 2013. (Flash 90/File)

Feiglin, who was pushed out of the ruling Likud four years ago for his extreme right-wing positions, has taken this year’s election campaign by storm, putting his call for the legalization of cannabis high on the national agenda and forcing the front-runners to take a stand on the issue. He is also one of the few party leaders to refrain from endorsing either Netanyahu or Gantz.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon speaks at the 16th annual Jerusalem Conference of the Besheva group, on February 12, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Further complicating matters for Netanyahu is that another rightist leader, Kulanu chief Moshe Kahlon, reiterated Sunday that he will not join the coalition if he does not remain in his current post of finance minister — the post Feiglin is now seeking.

Feiglin said in the radio interview on Friday that he would join a coalition with “whoever will allow me to advance the party platform in the widest and most significant way possible.”

Polls show his Zehut party heading for five to seven seats in the 120-member Knesset. Enjoying a surge of support largely due to his pro-cannabis platform, however, Feiglin is also pushing a radical libertarian policy package, with a religious and nationalist twist.

The political manifesto of Feiglin’s Zehut — Hebrew for identity — includes canceling signed agreements with the Palestinians, making Arab Israeli citizens pass a loyalty test, and offering financial incentives to them to emigrate elsewhere if they refuse to accept Jewish sovereignty over the land. He has also previously spoken out against women, gays, and Reform Jews. In 1995, shortly before then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, he orchestrated raucous protests against the Oslo Peace accords. The Supreme Court later sentenced him to six months in prison for sedition against the state, which was later commuted to community service.

During his campaign, Feiglin has downplayed his past as an ultra-nationalist activist and insists he is currently focused on civic issues alone.

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz speaks in Tel Aviv on March 31, 2019. (Saria Diamant/ Blue and White)

With two days remaining before Israelis go to the polls, Netanyahu has issued appeals for support from right-wing voters, saying that they are in danger of losing their hold on power if Gantz’s Blue and White emerges with a lead of four or more seats over Likud, as some recent surveys predict.

While many surveys have suggested that Blue and White could win more seats, they all show that Netanyahu has the greater chance of assembling a majority coalition.

Despite the expected majority for right-wing factions in the 120-seat Knesset, Netanyahu pointed to recent comments by President Rivlin wondering how to choose who should get the first shot at cobbling together a government, saying the president would choose whichever party is the biggest if no prime ministerial candidate has a sufficient number of recommendations from other party leaders to form a coalition.

“We don’t have 61 recommendations, because a few right-wing parties refuse to say clearly that they’ll recommend me. In a situation like that, [you] look to the largest party,” Netanyahu told Channel 12 news in an interview Saturday night.

The prime minister did not name a right-wing party that has not thrown its support behind him, but appeared to be referring to Feiglin’s Zehut.

In a succession of interviews on Sunday, Netanyahu reiterated that his chances of reelection were not assured, and that he did not have a guaranteed path to a majority coalition.

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