Frustrated Zehut struggles to stay upbeat as exit polls harsh party’s high

Moshe Feiglin vows he’ll continue to push his agenda, claims party raised new awareness of issues among younger generation

Zehut party leader Moshe Feiglin addresses supporters and journalists at what was meant to be a victory party in Ramat Gan on April 9, 2019. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)
Zehut party leader Moshe Feiglin addresses supporters and journalists at what was meant to be a victory party in Ramat Gan on April 9, 2019. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

A sense of disbelief descended over the Zehut party as exit poll results flashed across the screen on Tuesday night, with all three polls showing the highly touted far-right pro-cannabis wildcard failing to cross the minimum threshold to enter the 21st Knesset.

Zehut had been seen as the Cinderella story of the campaign season, with some polls showing it getting up to seven seats after years of party leader Moshe Feiglin wandering through the political wilderness.

About 20 core activists from the party had gathered in a large ballroom at the Leonardo City Tower, outnumbered three to one by journalists, waiting for the results of the exit polls. But instead of a celebration, the event had more the hallmarks of a funeral after a sudden death.

Most of the journalists cleared out after the exit polls predicted Feiglin would not pass the minimum threshold of four seats. The band that was hired packed up their instruments without taking the stage.

In a video message, Feiglin told supporters not to give up hope until every single vote is counted, which could only happen on Thursday.

But visibly exhausted after a whirlwind three months, he described the less than optimistic numbers as “foggy.”

“Personally, I believe that we are in, that Zehut will be in the next Knesset, but we are certainly in a foggy situation and don’t know what will happen,” Feiglin told a handful of supporters an hour after the results came in, at what was supposed to be a victory party in Ramat Gan.

“What is happening now is the end of the beginning, not the beginning of the end,” he said. “What happened during this campaign is that a new awareness was born, an awareness of liberty.”

He blamed his party’s poor showing in the polls on a concentrated campaign against Zehut from the entire political spectrum.

“The only new thing in this entire election was Zehut,” Feiglin said. “The Haredim, the leftists and the rightists were all united against Zehut, because Zehut was threatening to all these parties. Even from outside of the political arena, they were united against us also in the media, and this campaign had an effect,” he said. “My feeling is that because of this campaign against Zehut people went back to their traditional votes for the institutions.”

Feiglin said that he will continue to advocate for the issues that formed his campaign, including legalizing recreational marijuana and libertarian economic policies, though he cautioned that process could take time.

״We will be there when the flame that we lit during this election becomes a large bonfire, with everything you built and everything you gave your soul to,” he said. “Zehut is not going to retreat backwards. No one is going home saying ‘hey, we tried, it didn’t work.’ We have covered large distances, but we can’t take off our boots and go home and wait for the generation to make these changes.”

“The true victory is the awareness that we sparked in this entire younger generation,” Feiglin added.

Zehut activists react with disbelief as exit polls predict their party will not clear the minimum threshold to enter the Knesset, in Ramat Gan on April 9, 2019. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

Albert Levy, a French-Israeli businessman who was eighth on the Zehut list, said he was “sad and also frustrated.”

“It’s just hard to understand right now, the last polls had us with eight seats, so I don’t understand how we went from 8 to 0,” he said. “My feeling is that a lot of people were worried about the right bloc or the left bloc and a lot of the votes went to the big parties.”

Levy said he was also worried about the close tie between the right and left coalitions.

“Forget the right and left, this is not good for the political stability of the State of Israel,” said Levy. “I bet we will be back at elections in a year and a half.”

Zehut had presented a broad plan to “end the persecution of cannabis users” through “full and regulated legalization of cannabis, based on the restrictions on the sale of alcohol and on the restrictions already in use where cannabis is legal.” Feiglin has also sought to play up other quasi-libertarian domestic policies, which, besides legalization, include an anti-labor union platform that promotes school vouchers, animal rights and free market economics.

Polls originally ignored the party, but eventually as the cannabis position took center stage, Zehut gradually grew in popularity, with most polls predicting between five to seven seats.

As he sought to maximize his popularity, Feiglin initially played down his radical nationalist and religious far-right positions, even though they are set out in full in his 344-page bestselling manifesto, in favor of his message of personal freedom.

But as support for Zehut has grown, Feiglin has emerged from the clouds of marijuana smoke and begun to talk like the ideological purist who has railed against establishment thinking since the early 1990s. Upending established political wisdom, however, this has not alienated voters; to the contrary, more and more seem to be heading his way.

“We’re a bit confused, but we really think he will still pass the threshold,” said Reut Chimerman, an activist who worked on Feiglin’s social media campaign.

“It’s frustrating. We saw the polls giving him a lot of support, and our graph was always going up and up,” she said. “Even if Zehut doesn’t get into the Knesset, there’s still a place for Zehut’s core issues, our approach to the economy and education, because we forced all of the parties to take a stand on these issues. All of these issues really percolated into the other parties during the campaign. If it doesn’t happen this time, it will happen next time. We really felt like we were a breakthrough party.”

Raoul Wootliff contributed to this story. 

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