If you haven't seen Moshe Feiglin's satisfied smile or Ze'ev Elkin's scowl in news coverage of Israel over the past week, you have evidence that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should be grateful for the U.N. vote on Palestinian statehood: It has diverted attention from his Likud Party's choice of far-right candidates for parliament.
Israel goes to the polls on January 22. Conventional wisdom is that the election can bring no change: Netanyahu will stay on for another term as prime minister, heading a coalition of the right. This is an illusion, or at least a distortion. Barring a miracle—a world-class gaffe or scandal, a public threat from the Obama administration to reevaluate relations with Israel, a preternatural move by the parties of the left and center to unite—the next prime minister will indeed be Netanyahu. But not the soft cuddly Netanyahu of the past. His party will have much more clearly crossed the line from conservative to radical right. Netanyahu's own occasional lip service to moderation is likely to remain only a blurred memory. In this context, his aggressive response to the U.N. vote—designed to infuriate Israel's allies—should be read not as a mere campaign ploy, but as foreshadowing Bibi Unbound.
So about Feiglin. He's the founder and head of the Jewish Leadership movement. The group's website features a video of Feiglin explaining why Israel must build the Third Temple where the Dome of the Rock now stands. Jewish Leadership's platform calls for Israeli annexation of the West Bank and "encouraging" Palestinians to emigrate. After a failed run for the Knesset in 1999, Feiglin joined the Likud and signed up thousands of followers as party members. The Likud's slate of Knesset candidates is chosen in primaries where only dues-paying members can vote, and Feiglin's regimented bloc has an outsized, extortionate influence.
This matters more because of the way national elections work: Voters cast a single ballot for a party. If a party wins 10 percent of the vote, the first 12 candidates on its slate enter the 120-member parliament. To vote for Netanyahu, one must actually vote for entire Likud slate.
Last week, the Likud held its primary. For the first time, Feiglin placed high enough on the slate that he's certain to become a Knesset member. His influence, and what appears to be a wider shift in the party, pushed other zealots of the right to the top of the slate. From there, by unwritten political rules, some can expect cabinet appointments, while others chair parliamentary committees.
Among the winners is Elkin: a West Bank settler whose legislative accomplishments include a law that makes it illegal to call for boycotting products from settlements. And there's Dani Danon, who pushed for a parliamentary investigation of human-rights groups, and Miri Regev, who at a public rally last spring called African asylum-seekers a "cancer" in Israeli society. And Ofir Akinus: Challenged last winter by a TV interviewer about his support for McCarthyist legislation, Akinus replied that Joseph McCarthy "was right in every word he said."
This is just a partial list of the Likud's new line-up. At the same time, the last of the Likud's old-fashioned conservatives, committed to the ground rules of democracy, were dumped from the slate.
Before the last national election, Netanyahu sought a moderate image, and manipulated party rules to keep Feiglin out of the Knesset. This time, he simply he praised the result of the primaries. But then, he had already shown that he is ready to run on a more extreme ticket. In late October, he engineered an alliance with Avigdor Lieberman's Israel Is Our Home party. This is just a step short of a merger. The two parties have picked their candidates separately, then put them on a single ticket.
Lieberman is known for a platform aimed at disenfranchising Arab citizens of Israel. Two nationalities can't live together in a single state, he once told me in an interview. (He also told me that his absolutely favorite book is a novel about the life of the Russian autocrat Peter the First. Actually, it was written during Stalin's time to praise the Great Ploughman.) Lieberman's party is part of Netanyahu's outgoing government, but Bibi could claim he had no choice—that without Lieberman, no one could patch together a majority in parliament.
Now a vote for Netanyahu is now also a vote for Lieberman. The name of Lieberman's party, Israel Is Our Home, suggested that it should not be home to certain unnamed people. The new alliance's name is Likud Is Our Home: There are people who are at home in this party; and there's everyone else.
All of this is of a piece with Netanyahu's response to the General Assembly vote accepting Palestine as a non-member observer state. Netanyahu equated the decision with the U.N.'s infamous 1975 "Zionism is racism" resolution. In reality, the 1975 vote aimed at delegitimizing Israel's existence. Last week's decision ratifies a two-state solution, with Palestine next to Israel. If Netanyahu was thinking about his words, he was declaring that any challenge to Israel's rule over the West Bank is equivalent to negating Israel's existence. If he was responding from the gut, the emotional message was, "The whole world is against us, so we might as well do what we want."
Either way, his declaration makes sense of his decision to move ahead on building the E-1 neighborhood, which will join Jerusalem and the settlement of Ma'aleh Adumim, cutting the West Bank in two. It is a clear declaration statement that Netanyahu seeks to prevent creation of a Palestinian state. Bibi's calculation seems to be that the anger of European allies will amplify Israelis' fears of a hostile world and make them rally around a defiant leader. Meanwhile, he counts on an American reaction that goes no further than a mild rebuke.
Polls continue to show Netanyahu as the certain winner of the election. Partly that's because the center-left opposition has fragmented into bickering parties, riven by personal rivalries. The largest of those parties, Labor, is trying to act as if the issues of peace and the Palestinians have vanished, rather than challenging Netanyahu's policy.
The lack of an American or European peace initiative frees Bibi of explaining why he won't return to negotiations. And so far, the Obama administration has done nothing to show that reelecting Netanyahu might strain relations. Barring miracles, Israelis and the world will wake up on January 23 to the new, nastier Netanyahu.