Moshe Feiglin, head of the Zehut party, during an election campaign tour in the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on April 4, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Yonatan Sindel / Flash90, shows Moshe Feiglin campaigning in Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda market, April 4, 2019
The kingmaker'I will be prime minister eventually'

Up in smoke: How pro-pot Feiglin has won over voters, unfazed by his extremism

He’d build the Third Temple, annex the West Bank, encourage Palestinians to leave. But he also vows to legalize marijuana. And that’s why Moshe Feiglin is the hit of the elections

Raoul Wootliff is a former Times of Israel political correspondent and Daily Briefing podcast producer.

Yonatan Sindel / Flash90, shows Moshe Feiglin campaigning in Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda market, April 4, 2019

The first three books on Israel’s current bestseller list are, in descending order, a tale of three generations of women searching for their family’s past; a part-imagined coming of age story of the Ba’al Shem Tov’s daughter and her view of the Hasidic revolution; and a fictional telling of the challenges facing a boy orphaned in the 1948 Independence War.

Number four on the list is a 344-page political manifesto saying Israel should annex the entire West Bank, encourage Palestinians to leave the territories, move government facilities to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, and curtail the authority of the Supreme Court and the attorney general.

The protracted and radical platform may sound like fiction. But in two days’ time, it could be well on the way to becoming policy advocated by a party at the heart of the Israeli government.

From the front cover of “To be a Free Jew” stares the bespectacled and pensive-looking Moshe Feiglin, a radical right-wing activist who, apart from a brief spell as a Likud Knesset member (2013-15), has languished on the fringes of Israeli politics for over two decades. The self-declared ultra-nationalist has finally found mainstream popularity with his new Zehut party — and, to the surprise of booksellers across the country, with its manifesto, which now sits prominently on their shelves, if it’s not sold out.

“Lots of different types of people are coming in to buy it,” said a staffer at a Steimatzky bookstore on Ben Yehuda Street in central Jerusalem as she closed up shop for the day on Sunday. “Young and old, religious and secular. Lots of different books have wide audiences. But you don’t expect it for a book like this.”

The Zehut party platform, “To be a Free Jew,” filling a shelf in a Steimatsky bookstore in Jerusalem, April 7, 2019. (Raoul Wootliff/Times of Israel)

Asked if she had read the volume herself, the worker, who asked not to be named, said she “had picked it up a couple of times” but not delved into its 23 chapters, which sweep across a range of topics, from introducing a flat income tax to the dismantling of the Palestinian Authority, the development of the Temple Mount… and legalizing marijuana.

Initially, Feiglin’s Zehut (Identity) struggled to make inroads among the crowded field of parties competing in Tuesday’s elections. What started its rise to prominence two months ago was its promise to push for marijuana legalization if it won seats, however improbable this seemed at the time, in the 21st Knesset.

With the pro-cannabis Green Leaf party not running in general elections for the first time in 20 years, legalization advocates have gradually turned en masse to the nationalist, libertarian Zehut of Feiglin, who cannily made legalizing marijuana a plank of his radical and iconoclastic manifesto — now adorned with a silver “bestseller” badge.

The final polls of the campaign late last week show Zehut heading for five to seven seats in the 120-member Knesset. If that proves accurate, perennial outcast Feiglin could be poised to play kingmaker when it comes to post-election coalition-building, winning ministerial representation and being well-placed to demand the implementation of some of his key demands.

With the support of stand-up comedian and legalization activist Gadi Wilcherski, who is placed in an unrealistic 18th spot on the party slate but has joined Feiglin at a number of high-profile Zehut events, the party is presenting 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 include an anti-labor union platform that promotes school vouchers, animal rights and free market economics.

Moshe Feiglin, head of Zehut, during a campaign tour in the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on April 4, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A proven ability to attract devoted followers

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 that 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.

“I haven’t always supported him, but in the last two years I became interested in the party as its ideals really spoke to me,” said 23-year old Harel Bassan from Jerusalem on Sunday. “Now I’d definitely call myself a Feiglin supporter, even an ardent Feiglin supporter.”

In his 25-plus years of political activism, Haifa-born Feiglin, a 56-year-old father of five, has always possessed the ability to draw bands of loyal and devoted followers. As co-founder of the Zo Artzeinu protest movement, he encouraged thousands of activists to block traffic across Israel in the hope of thwarting the 1993 Oslo Accords with the Palestinians. As chair of the far-right Manhigut Yehudit (Jewish Leadership) faction, he brought throngs of religious settlers into the Likud ranks, and ultimately, to the immense irritation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, won election as a Likud MK.

Moshe Feiglin campaigns unsuccessfully in Jerusalem for a seat in Likud in 2008. (Olivier Fitoussi /FLASH90)

With Zehut, however, he has managed to reach a new audience that may not have previously imagined itself voting for a settler activist who has spoken out against women, gays, and Reform Jews, who is banned from the UK (since 2008) for inciting violence against Arabs, and who was sentenced to six months in prison for sedition. That sentence, handed down by the Supreme Court in 1995, when he orchestrated raucous protests against the Oslo Accords shortly before then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, was later commuted to community service.

Drawn to the pro-legalization Feiglin, they are not turning away from the pro-Palestinian population transfer Feiglin. Some potential Zehut voters acknowledge they know little or nothing of his non-marijuana-related positions and track record; others acknowledge that they don’t care; still others say they would care, but that he won’t be able to implement his more radical policies anyway.

“I first heard about him in terms of him being in favor of legalization,” said Adi, a 21-year-old Tel Aviv University student who lives in the school’s student housing in the north of the city. “Yeah, I smoke. And I think it should be legal. So when someone comes along and says ‘obviously it should,’ I definitely want to hear what they have to say.”

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

Adi, who will be voting for the first time on April 9, said she went to her first Zehut event two weeks ago, when the party held a pro-cannabis conference in Tel Aviv that she’d seen advertised in fliers given out on campus.

“There was a good feeling there,” she said. “There were lots of different types of people.”

While she described herself as “more to the left,” Adi said she had come to agree with Feiglin’s views on the economy, and that “even on the stuff that might be seen as right-wing, even extremist, I think that he is trying to find a solution where others have none.”

She was referring to the radical — in some cases pyromaniacal — sections of the manifesto, which she said she had bought but not yet read, that specifically call for annexing the West Bank and encouraging the Palestinians to leave, putting government facilities atop the Temple Mount, curtailing the authority of the Supreme Court and the attorney general, and more.

Zehut head Moshe Feiglin meets potential voters in Jerusalem on March 13, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

“I don’t know about all of them,” Adi admitted. “But those aren’t all issues he’s going to really implement. He talks about his social and economic policies much more.”

Speaking with The Times of Israel during an onstage English-language interview in Tel Aviv last month, Feiglin was indeed keen to steer the discussion toward his domestic policies, twice asking the crowd to ask him fewer questions about his views on the West Bank and the Palestinians — while rejecting the use of the demonym in a question by this reporter, and insisting on referring to Palestinians as “Arabs” — and more about “our fantastic economic plans.”

Candid about his policies

When pushed, however, he did set out his positions on the issue: Explaining his support for a one-state solution, Feiglin contended that over 90 percent of Palestinians in Gaza and 65% of Palestinians in the West Bank would already prefer to emigrate, making it possible to maintain a Jewish majority in an expanded sovereign Israel between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. (He did not specify a source for the statistics and the Zehut party was not able to provide one either.)

As for the “minority” of Palestinians who choose to forgo economic incentives to depart and insist on remaining in that larger Israel, Feiglin said they would be given permanent residency and receive “full human rights” but would not be granted the same civil rights as Israelis.

Those Palestinians who — “for some reason that I can’t even think of” — were interested in obtaining citizenship would be able to do so through a “long process” during which they would be required to “openly swear loyalty to the Jewish state,” Feiglin said, declaring that such an approach would ensure “a real peace.”

In short, Feiglin said, his stance on the Palestinian issue was similar to that of the self-declared Kahanist disciples in the Otzma Yehudit party, whose leader Michael Ben Ari was banned from running in these elections for incitement to racism.

Zehut party chairman Moshe Feiglin (R) is interviewed by Times of Israel political correspondent Raoul Wootliff in Tel Aviv on March 23, 2019. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

Feiglin also advocated for Israel retaking military control within Gaza, arguing that the residents of the coastal enclave would receive “more human rights” than those they currently enjoy under the Hamas terror group that rules the Strip.

With similar candor last week, he set out the religious imperative behind his proposal for Israel to take full control of the daily security and management of the Temple Mount complex — the holiest place in Judaism and the site of the third-holiest mosque in Islam — saying that he wants to rebuild the third Jewish Temple there, immediately. “I don’t want to build a Temple in one or two years, I want to build it now,” Feiglin told a Maariv/Jerusalem Post conference in Tel Aviv.

Moshe Feiglin (center) during a court hearing in Jerusalem on October 2, 2012. Feiglin was arrested for allegedly praying on the Temple Mount. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Such a move would be unrealistic in the extreme; suggestions of even minor changes to the status quo on the tinderbox holy site — where Israel has claimed sovereignty since 1967, but where the Waqf Muslim trust holds administrative authority and Jews can visit but not pray — have been met with vociferous, violent and sometimes deadly protests.

Bassan, the 23-year-old who called himself an ardent Feiglin supporter, said he was primarily drawn to Feiglin’s pro-marijuana and free market economic views but also supported his views on the Palestinian issue, even while holding some reservations. “I do think it’s slightly more complicated and an issue that is slightly up in the air. But it’s more ideas, and not so much exactly what he will do,” he assessed.

Even on the stuff that might be seen as right-wing, even extremist, I think that he is trying to find a solution where others have none

Identifying as right-wing, Bassan said he thought that encouraging Palestinians to leave the territories of their own volition was “a good idea” but that there would have to be research done to establish whether they truly want to. “It would only be okay if they wanted to. I don’t think it’s moral to push people from their homes,” he said.

Aaron Rutenberg, 37, a resident of the Tekoa West Bank settlement and long-time fan of Feiglin, said he felt that support for the Zehut leader’s economic plans went hand-in-hand with backing for his hardline security policies — and that it was this combination that was attracting voters.

“People have been voting for a certain approach for a long, long time and they are tired of it: For big government and for a certain approach to terrorism,” he said. “Neither has worked. Both need to be changed.”

The ultimate goal

While the increasingly confident Feiglin is now quite unabashed about his extreme right-wing policies, he is still making an effort to reach out to voters across the political spectrum — those who want to see Netanyahu reelected along with those who want him replaced with Blue and White leader Benny Gantz.

“I would like him to recommend Netanyahu, and I think he will recommend Netanyahu,” Rutenberg said of the process after the election whereby representatives of each party that has made it into the Knesset are called in by President Reuven Rivlin to tell him whom they recommend he should charge with building a coalition. “It would disappoint me if he didn’t, but I just can’t imagine it,” he added.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attending the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s office in Jerusalem on December 9, 2018 (L) and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz at a press conference in Tel Aviv on April 1, 2019.(Oded Balilty and JACK GUEZ / AFP)

Both Bassan and Adi, by contrast, said they would prefer Feiglin to ally himself with ex-IDF chief Gantz.

“I would be happy for Bibi to be kicked out,” Bassan said. “I don’t know if I would be happy that Gantz is prime minister but maybe he could be better. I think that it’s hard to make any change with Bibi; we need change.”

In Adi’s words, “Gantz is okay. I don’t want Bibi.”

Surveys toward the end of the campaign have generally indicated that while Likud and Blue and White are neck-and-neck, Netanyahu would get the recommendations of a majority of the elected MKs, and thus be best placed to form the next multi-party coalition, but Feiglin’s stance could potentially change that equation. Insisting that he does not have a preference between Netanyahu and Gantz, Feiglin — who has demanded the Finance Ministry for his party and said that he could fill the position — could emerge as a kingmaker in a tightly contested race.

Feiglin could also recommend himself to Rivlin as prime minister, a party source said on Sunday night — a scenario that has no chance of being realized in this election, but one that he asserts will come to pass in the future.

“I will be prime minister eventually,” Feiglin assured The Times of Israel last month. “Then we can really start to work.”

Moshe Feiglin speaks at a Zehut campaign event in Tel Aviv on April 2, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
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