TEL AVIV — He was once convicted of sedition. He is banned from entering Britain because of his inflammatory rhetoric. He was forced out of the Likud party in early 2015.
But Moshe Feiglin could very well become the big success story of Israel’s general election next week.
The 56-year-old Israeli settler, long shunned by the mainstream for his radical views, appears to have struck a chord with a section of the electorate by pitching a simple, sharp message: Legalize pot.
“The legalization issue has got people listening to me,” Feiglin told The Washington Post in an interview Wednesday.
But the kippa-wearing politician, who once served as deputy speaker of parliament and was rising through the ranks of the ruling Likud before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu actively blocked his advancement, stands for much more than just making marijuana legal.
“We’re talking about freedom. Freedom and identity come together,” he said. “You cannot be free if you don’t know who you are, and once people understand who they are, they come to Zehut.”
Zehut is the party Feiglin formed in 2015 after his ouster from Likud. Its platform, according to the party website, calls for a Jewish and “liberty state.”
Libertarianism, Jewish style.
The party wants a state that “matures from Zionism of existence to Zionism of destiny” and reduces government interference in citizens’ private lives. It champions a free market; freedom in educational, culture and health choices; curtailment of the social welfare system; and a complete separation of religion and state. Its slogan: “Liberty. Purpose. Jewish identity.”
Zehut, which means identity, believes Israel is a Jewish state with institutions that must adhere to traditional Jewish values and with borders that extend “from the Jordanian River to the Mediterranean Sea.”
As part of the party’s platform, non-Jews living within Israel’s expanded borders will be encouraged to emigrate.
A promotional video by the party states: “Those who stay and declare loyalty will receive permanent residency, and those who wish to be loyal citizens and serve in the army will get full citizenship, after a lengthy examination.”
Zehut also wants Israel to assert control over the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Legalizing marijuana, however, seemed an odd issue for the party to embrace.
The campaign pitch initially elicited much scoffing, especially as it appeared unlikely that Feiglin and his party would clear the threshold of votes required to enter the Knesset, or parliament.
But as the election has drawn closer, support for Zehut has grown. A recent rally in Tel Aviv drew a few thousand, mostly younger, voters from all streams of Israeli society and political backgrounds.
The most recent polling shows that Feiglin could win as many as seven seats, a strong number for a small party that initially was dismissed out of hand.
“Once people see that we offer an ideology that gives them their country back — and I don’t mean from a territorial point of view but in terms of a free market, free choice in education, that it gives the citizens of Israel the ownership of their own state — then they can look at our entire political platform with a more open mind,” Feiglin said.
His controversial plan to remove the Islamic religious trust that administers the al-Aqsa Mosque compound — the raised esplanade that Israelis call the Temple Mount and that also houses the Dome of the Rock — is the only way to bring peace to Jerusalem, he said. The site is revered by Jews, Muslims and Christians. Feiglin even has said that given the chance he would build a third Jewish Temple on the site where two Jewish temples once stood.
“It is the Waqf on the Temple Mount that is causing tension,” Feiglin said, referring to the Islamic trust. “Allowing them to stay there is sticking to the disease and causing more and more sickness. I am suggesting an opposite approach.”
Despite his hard-line, almost messianic views, however, Feiglin is not divorced from pragmatism. He said he is willing to enter into a coalition with “whoever offers us a better deal.”
In a system such as Israel’s in which parties rarely gain a large enough majority to form a government, smaller factions become kingmakers.
Netanyahu’s Likud and a newer centrist-left faction, Blue and White, led by former military chief of staff Benny Gantz, are running neck and neck in polls. Whoever emerges as the leading vote-getter will have to rely on the smaller parties to gain the minimum of 61 seats required to form the government.
Dan Avnon, chairman of the political science department at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, said every election cycle in Israel has given rise to a party that appeared “new and fresh” to voters.
Avnon said Feiglin started with a small and committed “ultra-messianic and nationalistic” base, but by adding marijuana legalization to his party’s platform he has grabbed supporters from the Green Leaf party, another pro-legalization faction, which is not running in this election.
“Feiglin says he does not smoke, but he put legalization on his platform and brought it to the fore,” Avnon said. “Now you have two special-interest groups. What pulls them together is the strong libertarian, anti-state agenda that works well for both.”