With first open primaries, Moshe Feiglin’s ‘Zehut’ looks for a public identity

Fledgling right-wing party hopes letting all Israelis choose its electoral slate can turn its firebrand leader into a transformative political force

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

MK Moshe Feiglin (Likud) outside the closed entrance to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem's Old City on October 30, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
MK Moshe Feiglin (Likud) outside the closed entrance to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem's Old City on October 30, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Moshe Feiglin is Israel’s ultimate political outsider.

First gaining prominence as the founder of the Zo Artzeinu protest movement, which hoped to block the 1993 Oslo Accords by blocking traffic across Israel, his public activity over the past 25 years has been defined by a dogged insistence on remaining a contrarian.

Best known for his aggressive advocacy on behalf of West Bank settlements and his occasionally incendiary pronouncements, which kept him off the Likud’s Knesset slate for years and got him banned from entering the United Kingdom, Feiglin has always preferred ideological authenticity over populist pragmatism.

On Tuesday, however, launching Israel’s first-ever primary election open to any member of the public, he said he was hoping to break out of his mold as an outcast misfit and bring his fledgling Zehut party to the masses.

“For the first time in Israel’s history, we, the people, can show Israel how a real democracy acts,” the former Knesset member told The Times of Israel on Tuesday as both physical and digital polling stations opened for Zehut across the country and online.

Moshe Feiglin speaking at the first conference of his Zehut party, February 28, 2017. (Peleg Alkalai)

Failing to reach a realistic spot on Likud’s slate before the 2015 national elections after having finally managed to enter Knesset with the party for the first time just two years before, Feiglin left the ruling party to form his own “political movement,” which he said at the time would “change the face of Israeli politics.”

But four years later, with the April 9 elections nearing, Zehut, which translates as “identity,” is still struggling to make its mark on both the public discourse and the public itself. As it languishes below the electoral threshold in all major opinion polls, Tuesday’s primaries could be a key barometer for whether there is any prospect for Feiglin’s unique brand of Israeli identity politics.

“Today, all citizens of the State of Israel will choose the party’s list for the Knesset through a unique and secure voting system that allows every Israeli citizen to vote in the party’s primaries, even if he is not a member of the party,” Zehut told Israeli Facebook users in a final bid to increase turnout. Party officials are hoping that droves of citizens casting votes in the first Israeli ballot of its kind can spark mass public interest and help the party avoid electoral obsolescence.

According to the party, 10,000 people have already registered to vote among the 15 candidates vying for slots 2 through 16 on the party slate (the top spot is Feiglin’s and isn’t up for grabs), with that number “expected to double and triple until the voting closes.” A turnout of 30,000 would indeed be a hugely impressive achievement, but would still leave a lot of work to get to the approximately 125,000 votes needed in the national elections to pass the 3.25 percent electoral threshold.

Discarded campaign flyers rest in a trash can following the Likud party primaries on Nov 25, 2012 (photo credit: Uri Lenz/Flash90)
Discarded campaign flyers rest in a trash can following the Likud party primaries on Nov 25, 2012 (Uri Lenz/Flash90)

Party primaries were introduced to Israeli politics in the early 1990s, when several major parties sought to bolster public support by increasing participation in the democratic process. Since then, however, most new parties have forgone the internal elections, opting instead for a system in which the party leader or a committee of officials chooses a “perfect” slate, unsullied by the caprices of party members.

For Feiglin, opening his party beyond its own members is just as much an ideological choice as it is a practical way of gaining traction.

“Israel’s Knesset members must work for their constituents,” he declared. “By joining Zehut’s primaries, citizens are getting their own ‘congressman’ and sending a clear message that Israeli politics needs to change.”

And there is a lot that Feiglin wants to change.

From revamping Israel’s education system to resemble the US voucher program, to introducing aggressive free market economic policies, to legalizing marijuana and opposing biometric identification cards, Zehut is presenting a fairly radical libertarian policy package, albeit one with a religious and nationalist twist.

As well as his economic and social policies, Feiglin, a firebrand opponent of Palestinian statehood, supports building a Third Temple in Jerusalem, has questioned why Israel’s non-Jewish citizens have any say in Israeli politics and called for stripping Arab Israelis of certain rights.

Feiglin claims there is no contradiction: “I’m not Libertarian, I’m Jewish,” he said. “The concept of liberty comes from my Judaism.”

According to Feiglin, Zehut’s manifesto is not a mishmash of unconnected policy proposals but “an entirely new sociological vision” for the Jewish people that he believes “speaks to large, broad circles in the Israeli society.”

It is, he said, “a vision that combines our Jewish identity with personal freedom. It’s a concept that is not known in Israel thus far, and one that is very much needed.”

A Likud supporter carries a poster of far-right party member Moshe Feiglin (Uri Lenz/Flash90)
A Likud supporter carries a poster of far-right party member Moshe Feiglin (Uri Lenz/Flash90)

In the early 2000s, Feiglin first attempted to influence Israeli politics with a crusade to take over the Likud party via his far-right Manhigut Yehudit (Jewish Leadership) faction. The group sought a foothold within the country’s venerable right-wing party in order to “return the country to the people and lead the State of Israel through authentic Jewish values.”

Having since given up on Likud, Feiglin is still seeking to bring about the same goal, now via Zehut.

“Israelis are used to thinking that if you want your freedom and liberty, you need to give away or erase your identity, all the identities,” he said, citing John Lennon’s song “Imagine” as an example of the modern approach. Zehut, on the other hand, provides a “synergy” between freedom and liberty and Israeli and Jewish identity.

“The majority see themselves first of all as Jewish, and only then anything else.” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re religious or not religious, this is not what we’re talking about. We are not talking about a religion, we’re talking about Jewish identity.”

Feiglin is adamant that Tuesday’s primaries are the beginning of the revolution that will see Zehut become a transformative political force, in parliament and beyond. “We’re talking about a movement unlike other political groups that jump into the pot and try to grab a few Knesset seats,” he stressed.

“Zehut,” said Feiglin, embracing his image as an intrepid political outsider, “is in a different league altogether.”

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