Israel’s Tea Party

Meet the Feiglins, who are tearing apart Netanyahu and Israel’s right wing

Topics: GlobalPost, Israel, Middle East, Conservatism, Tea Party,

Israel’s Tea PartyIsrael's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Credit: AP/Ariel Schalit)
This article originally appeared on GlobalPost.

KARNEI SHOMRON, West Bank — Following the departure of the centrist Kadima party from its coalition government, Israel’s suddenly fragile political future hangs on the ability of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to keep his fractious right-wing coalition together.

Global Post

And keeping it together depends to a growing extent on one man, Moshe Feiglin.

Feiglin is an unprecedented hybrid on the Israeli political scene, who threatens the stability of Netanyahu’s own party, the Likud, and whose faction has been compared, including by himself, to the Tea Party within the Republican Party in the United States.

“Feiglin is a Trojan horse within the Likud,” said Yossi Klein Halevi, a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and a longtime scholar of the Jewish right wing. “And Netanyahu knows it and is treating him as such.”

Feiglin, 50, a father of five and grandfather of four, is a striking character. Tall, pale and reed thin, and an avid cyclist, he expresses himself with calm precision. He is unbending. His aims are to participate actively in mainstream politics and, at the same time, to assert a messianic, faith-based foundation to his vision.

He is not shy about his ambition. “Yes, I want to be prime minister,” he said evenly in a conversation with GlobalPost.

To that end, he runs a constant, unending campaign for his movement, Manhigut Yehudit, or in English, Jewish Leadership, and is active on Twitter and on Facebook.

The Israel of his conjuring is a Jewish state, full stop. In that state, non-Jews would enjoy human rights, not civil rights. “If Arabs want the right to vote for a national parliament,” he said, “they should go and demand that from Arab states. Who says a non-Jew should vote for the Knesset of Israel?”

Using a term that might ring a bell for observers of Mitt Romney’s campaign, Feiglin says that Palestinians should be encouraged to “self-deport” with financial incentives provided by Israel. It would be “a much better investment than all the money we spend maintaining the Oslo agreements,” he said.

Non-Jews who do not yet possess Israeli citizenship but live on land he believes should be annexed by Israel would be granted “residency permits,” but not standard national ID cards.

Feiglin believes Israel errs in not laying claim — even military claim — to the entirety of the Biblical land of Israel, and scoffs at those who question how non-Jewish residents of that large land mass would subsist.

According to Feiglin, there is no such thing as a “Palestinian people.”

“Most of these people came here following the Second Aliyah,” he claims, referring to an early 20th Century wave of about 40,000 Jewish immigrants into Israel, who were escaping Russian pogroms. “They came here following the pioneers’ wealth and success.”

“Democracy is not a religion,” he states, advocating a cherry-picking model whereby some aspects of democracy would be retained and others discarded as incongruous with the “Jewish aims” of the state.

In the last Likud primary elections, Feiglin was elected to the 19th position on the party list, guaranteeing him a seat in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset. Only questionable and unexplained maneuvers undertaken by Netanyahu lobbed Feiglin to the 36th place, ensuring he would not be a legislative force.

Running against Netanyahu in the last race for party leadership six months ago, Feiglin garnered 25 percent of the vote, though he told GlobalPost that he believes the figures were fiddled with to his detriment.

Gideon Rahat, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and an expert on Israeli party politics, said Feiglin and his associates, who are increasingly referred to as the Feiglins, now have a lot of power within the Likud party.

“They are a large minority with significant influence on primary elections, and they can get their people high on the party list and force Netanyahu to appoint them as ministers,” he said.

Klein Halevi said the Feiglins are “anti-democratic theocrats who are pretending to be part of the Likud’s political tradition but, in fact, reflect the opposite of Likud’s true roots.”

“Feiglin combines fascist revisionist tendencies with a longing for an imaginary golden age of theocracy in the distant past. And that is a pretty dangerous combination.”

As right wing and uncompromising as Netanyahu is perceived to be outside of Israel’s borders, his acceptance of the basic Labor party principle of a two-state solution and his acquiescence to relinquishing territory in the West Bank is the force propelling Feiglin, and the Feiglins, upward.

“That’s an ideological earthquake on the Israeli right,” Klein Halevi said. “Outside of Israel, the misperception is that he is playing a tactical game. But within his own party — a party that takes ideology seriously — Netanyahu’s drastic about-face was rightly seen as an ideological upheaval.”

Many speculate that Netanyahu and other establishment Likudniks, as party members are known, initially underestimated the strength of Feiglin’s hard-scrabble insurgency.

“I thought they should have gotten rid of him a long time ago,” Rahat said. “Because Feiglin doesn’t really represent their opinions. Obviously, they didn’t do that, and now they are paying the price. One day, the Feiglins may take the Likud over from within.”

Feiglin, who seems to be relishing the moment of political clout, remains a consummate and not entirely predictable actor on the national stage. His opinions do not dovetail easily with others on the right, for example Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who believes in strengthening Israel’s hold on the West Bank but is, himself and in his views, far from religiously kosher.

Much like the Tea Partiers in the United States, Feiglin waves the flag of freedom. In his Jewish state, he advocates the abolition of all religious parties and religious laws. He opposes, in fact, all forms of coercion, including the military draft.

“I believe people should be responsible for themselves,” he said. “I am speaking of freedom, not escapism. Freedom without responsibility always leads to enslavement, Socialism, Communism. It ends in the Gulag. Freedom with responsibility is a different thing entirely. Every truly free individual is fully responsible for his own fate.”

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