Zehut bows out of elections after Netanyahu promises Feiglin a cabinet post

In bid to shore up his chances in September vote, PM also promises far-right party to open medical cannabis market to imports

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Zehut party leader Moshe Feiglin at a joint press conference at Kfar Hamacabiah in Ramat Gan announcing Zehut's withdrawal from the September elections, on August 29, 2019. (Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Zehut party leader Moshe Feiglin at a joint press conference at Kfar Hamacabiah in Ramat Gan announcing Zehut's withdrawal from the September elections, on August 29, 2019. (Flash90)

Moshe Feiglin announced Thursday that his Zehut party will drop out of the running for the September elections, in exchange for a promise from Likud of a ministerial post and the liberalization of the medical marijuana market.

Netanyahu has been putting intense pressure on several small right-wing factions to drop out of the election in September so that their votes don’t get “wasted” if they fail to clear the 3.25-percent threshold for entering the Knesset. As with Zehut, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or his political representatives have also met over the past two weeks with candidates from the extremist Otzma Yehudit and Noam parties.

Standing next to Netanyahu during a press statement at the Kfar Maccabiah Hotel in Ramat Gan, Feiglin noted that the deal with Likud still had to be approved in a referendum of Zehut party members slated for Sunday.

“There are things we demanded and didn’t get,” he said of the deal. “That tells me that there’s a real intention to fulfill what was promised here.”

The agreement realizes “Zehut’s vision of freedom,” Feiglin enthused. He said it included additional stipulations, such as a tax moratorium for the first two years of a new business’s existence, as well as setting a government goal to enter the top-ten list of countries on the World Bank’s ease-of-doing-business rankings.

Zehut party leader Moshe Feiglin at a joint press conference with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Kfar Hamacabiah in Ramat Gan announcing Zehut’s withdrawal from the September elections, on August 29, 2019. (Flash90)

Netanyahu confirmed the two key promises that reports this week had said he agreed to: opening up the medical cannabis market to imports and appointing Feiglin to the next cabinet.

“Tens of thousands of sick who need medical cannabis, who deserve it and can’t get it — their need must be fulfilled. We will bring to the Knesset’s approval a bill to legalize medical cannabis,” the prime minister said. The cannabis market would be opened to imports “under the supervision of the relevant authorities,” he added, in order to bring down the cost of the drug to users.

And he told Feiglin: “Zehut’s important voice will be heard in the cabinet. I see you as a partner in the government. I really mean that. I think we can work together. Our success depends on joining forces, before the election and after. That’s why I’m calling on Zehut’s leaders and voters to help us in this mission.”

According to Likud sources, Feiglin won’t get his top choices for cabinet post — the ministries of finance or economy — but will nevertheless hold a “senior economic position in the cabinet.”

Zehut advocates a far-right nationalism combined with small-government libertarianism, and has drawn support from an eclectic mix of voters ranging from far-right settlement yeshiva students to pot legalization advocates in left-leaning Tel Aviv. It advocates annexing the West Bank and retaking Gaza, alongside the virtual dismantling of the state rabbinate and other Orthodox-controlled state religious services, and the total legalization of pot, including for recreational use.

Zehut party chairman Moshe Feiglin and activists at a party event in Tel Aviv, on August 27, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

A few hours before Thursday’s announcement, Zehut officials sent a notice to party members urging them to double check their membership status, and giving anyone who didn’t properly register the chance to do so by Saturday night. Members who are fully registered by that time “will be eligible to vote in the referendum” on the deal with Likud, the message said, with the exception of members who canceled their membership in the past.

Feiglin’s decision was “responsible,” officials from Yamina, the right-wing alliance of religious-Zionist factions, said on Thursday.

“Feiglin understood that these elections will decide the country’s future, and that letting [right-wing] votes go to waste has one clear consequence — a left-wing government that will endanger the country’s future,” a Yamina statement said.

“We’re sure that Zehut voters will find in Yamina the economically liberal home that will pull Israel’s economy to the right,” it added.

Yamina also called on Otzma Yehudit, which has trailed Zehut in polls, to follow Feiglin’s example.

Otzma Yehudit, which considers Yamina and Likud too liberal, was unimpressed with the new pressure.

Yamina head Ayelet Shaked (L) and Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben Gvir. (Flash90)

The party’s head, Itamar Ben Gvir, called on Zehut voters to “come back to your ideological home” in Otzma Yehudit. His party was “a home that always fought for Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel, that was always concerned with the public interest in its struggles, and in my legal fights in recent years to bring justice to Israel,” he said.

On the left, the deal drew criticism from Democratic Camp lawmaker Tamar Zandberg, who wrote a letter to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit on Thursday urging him to investigate possible breaches of election laws in the agreement.

“The offer [from Likud] raises the very real concern that it amounts to election bribery, and perhaps also fraud.”

The letter noted the 2008 conviction of former Nahariya mayor Ron Fromer, who was found guilty of corruption for promising senior positions in the municipal government to opponents who agreed to drop out of the race.

The party plans to appeal against the agreement to the Central Elections Committee, Zandberg said.

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