The challenger

Moshe Feiglin confident he can unseat Benjamin Netanyahu as Likud Party leader.

Moshe Felglin 521 (photo credit: Flash 90)
Moshe Felglin 521
(photo credit: Flash 90)
The Renana Hall in Rishon Lezion, normally host to bar mitzvas and weddings, is packed to capacity with an exuberant mainly male mix of bearded settler and clean-cut secular Likud activists.
It is late February and Moshe Feiglin, head of the radical Jewish Leadership faction in the Likud, is celebrating his strong showing in the recent leadership primary, in which he polled almost a quarter of the vote.
Paying tribute to his achievement are several leading party figures, including government ministers Yisrael Katz and Gilad Erdan, deputy minister Ayoob Kara and Knesset Members Danny Danon, Tzipi Hotovely, Zeev Elkin and Miri Regev.
The last time Feiglin challenged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2007, few mainstream Likudniks dared attend his post-election gathering. The far right-winger, who wants to see a Greater Israel with as few Palestinians as possible, had been declared persona non grata by Netanyahu.
Erdan, who was en route to Feiglin’s celebration in 2007, received an angry call from the powerful party leader and immediately turned back. But in the intervening five years much has changed in the country – and in the Likud. Now, surrounded by a bevy of party luminaries, Erdan is on the platform toasting Feiglin’s achievement: “You represent the values that have guided the Likud,” he declares.
The choice of Rishon Lezion, deep inside pre-1967 Israel, as the celebratory venue is no accident. It is meant to show that grassroots support for Feiglin and his ideas extends well beyond the settler population in the West Bank.
“Around 70-80 percent of my vote did not come from people I brought into the party or from the settlements in Judea and Samaria, but from places like Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa and Beersheba,” Feiglin tells The Jerusalem Report. “More and more people all across the country are starting to dream our dream.”
In the 12 years since Feiglin joined the Likud he has progressed from rank outsider, widely seen to be leading a hostile, settler-backed takeover bid, to mainstream power broker. Many Likudniks running for top spots in party institutions or for places on the next Knesset list feel they need his support.
Katz, Elkin and Hotovely, competing for the party’s Secretariat, Central Committee and Bureau respectively, attended the post-primary celebration. Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar, seeking to top the next Knesset list and be crowned as Netanyahu’s heir, has veered sharply to the right, renouncing the two-state solution. Whether to impress Feiglin or for real, the fact is the Likud is moving rightward, and the “Feiglin effect” makes it that much more difficult for Netanyahu to contemplate a two-state compromise with the Palestinians.
Growing influence
The perception of Feiglin’s growing influence is such that former Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg, a shrewd left-wing judge of the political scene, calls him “the most important man today in Israeli political discourse.”
It is not only a question of what is happening in the Likud. On the national level, Feiglin offers a third vision. Where Netanyahu’s critics fear the prime minister is muddling through to a one-state reality with a Palestinian majority and the chances of achieving the center-left’s vision of two states for two peoples appear to be rapidly fading, Feiglin offers a solution in which Israel keeps all the land and an unassailable Jewish majority: A unitary Jewish state including Israel proper, Gaza and the West Bank, from which most Palestinians have been persuaded to emigrate and those who stay are denied civil rights.
The choice is between Israel as a Western democracy based on universal humanist values, or a stand-alone, fiercely nationalistic, messianic Jewish Republic, in which only Jews have full citizenship.
Feiglin believes he has a realistic chance of one day leading the Likud party and implementing his ideological platform. Others, however, insist that his strength is vastly overstated. They argue that much of the nearly 25 percent he received in the party leadership primary came from Netanyahu’s chief rival in the Likud, Vice Premier Minister Silvan Shalom, who mobilized part of his large camp to embarrass the prime minister. Others insist that Feiglin’s is not even the strongest Likud faction among the settlers, where it faces serious challenges from groupings such as the National Jewish Staff, My Likud and former government minister Effie Eitam.
“If Feiglin really has 25 percent of the party behind him, his faction should have had at least eight seats in the Knesset,” says Haim Yoavi-Rabinovich, leader of the National Jewish Staff. “In all his years in the Likud he hasn’t got anyone into the Knesset, not even himself,” he scoffs.
The reason that Feiglin is not in the Knesset is that Netanyahu invoked a procedural ploy to push him down from 20th to the unrealistic 36th spot on the Likud list before the last election. The prime minister was concerned that a list with Feiglin’s name securely on it would frighten away droves of centrist voters essential to winning an election in Israel.
Feiglin, with his Talmudic background, is a master of ifha mistabra – turning arguments on their head and proving the opposite to be the case. He maintains that polls at the time showed that by relegating him, Netanyahu actually lost 13 seats – as if the Likud’s decline from 38 to 25 seats over the relevant period was due solely to a single variable: his demotion on the list.
Feiglin also turns on its head the thesis that the Likud needs to appeal to the center to win elections, and that he is therefore a liability. Likud, he argues, already occupies the center; everything to the left is taken up by Kadima and the others, and the Likud’s only potential growth area is to the right. “The real question is whether voters on the right go with Liberman, Shas and other right-wing parties or with the Likud.
Excuse the lack of modesty, but I would actually draw large segments and the Likud would grow considerably bigger as a result,” he insists.
Feiglin is sitting in a sun-drenched café in Kfar Saba, five minutes’ drive from his home in the sprawling West Bank settlement of Karnei Shomron. He likes to hold court here after early morning biking treks across the Samarian hills. Wiry, blue-eyed, his reddish beard closely cropped, he speaks quickly, with a great deal of conviction and a tinge of protective sarcasm.
After taking leave of his deputy Shmuel Sackett, who has come in for a working meeting, he expounds on his philosophy: The Jewish people have a God-given right to all the land of Israel; they are here not simply for survival, but to carry out a special mission; that mission has universal importance; it is to establish a new moral codex for the world as a whole based on Jewish values. In Israel, only Jews should have civil rights; others would have to be content with human rights and no vote.
As for the Palestinians, Feiglin argues, there is no Palestinian people, only Arabs who have no capacity for national organization and no right to any of the land. They should be given large sums to emigrate, hundreds of thousands of dollars per family from funds the country would save by abandoning the two-state project. “The money is there,” asserts Feiglin, “because you would be saving it from the budget. The will to emigrate is there, we see it in the surveys.
And countries crying out for modern semiskilled and skilled labor would be willing to absorb them. The question is whether those countries get people who built mud huts in Sudan or people who built the Azrieli Towers in Tel Aviv.”
But wouldn’t Israel find itself shunned by the international community, excoriated for ethnic cleansing and denying the vote to those Palestinians who choose to stay? “Why?” Feiglin shrugs. “I am not talking about transfer or about trains or buses. No one can complain about people being given money and emigrating freely. My solution meets all international legal and moral criteria, first and foremost because the country is ours.”
Feiglin acknowledges that the biggest problem facing Israel today is potential delegitimization by the international community.
But with another virtuoso display of ifha mistabra, he insists that it does not stem from perceived oppression of the Palestinians, but from perceived Israeli weakness – weakness in allowing Palestinians to fire at Israel with impunity, insecurity over whether the land is really ours, but mainly for failing to establish the Jewish Republic with its ethical message for the world as a whole. “It sounds utopian.
But it is amazing to see to what extent the enlightened world actually expects this of us.
And it is precisely because of its disappointment in us that it questions our legitimacy,” he says.
To underline his point he describes an account of a meeting between Israeli academics and British intellectuals explaining the current loathing of Israel among the British intelligentsia. “They said: ‘We gave you a country because we thought that when the people of the prophets returns to its land, a new bible or a new ethical code will be written in the land of Israel for the world as a whole. And look what you have done.’” Feiglin believes Israel’s legitimacy is being further undermined by its passivity in the face of Iran’s genocidal threats.
“Hitler didn’t decide one fine day to build Auschwitz. There was a process of delegitimization of the Jewish people that enabled the creation of the infrastructure for their physical extermination when the opportunity presented itself. And this is what Ahmadinejad is doing,” he charges. In Feiglin’s view, no leader should be allowed to talk the way Hitler did or the way Ahmadinejad is now doing, because leaders getting away with threats to destroy Israel erode its legitimacy.
“I would go for Ahmadinejad’s head,” he says, “and not allow anyone else to do it, because it is a statement we need to make.”
Peace, says Feiglin, will only come if Israel is strong and asserts its power, the way he would have it do. “Peace is a result, not a goal. If you make it a goal, something no other country does, you won’t get peace or security,” he concludes.
Born in Haifa in 1962, Feiglin grew up in Rehovot and is a graduate of the prestigious Or Etzion Yeshiva. After serving four years in the IDF, where he became a captain in the engineering corps, he opened the first window-washing company in Israel for high-rise buildings. In the early 1990s, his fervent opposition to the Oslo process led him to establish Zo Artzeinu, a right-wing protest movement, with the American-born Sackett, a former follower of Rabbi Meir Kahane, whose Kach party was banned in Israel for racism. Together they conducted a campaign of civil disobedience against Oslo, regularly blocking traffic on highways across the country.
Feiglin was tried for sedition and sentenced in 1997 to six months in prison, commuted to community service. In 2000, his Jewish Leadership group, founded in 1996, joined the Likud with the express intention of taking it over.
Feiglin likens Israel today to an impenetrable tank without a cannon or a periscope: it cannot be hurt by its enemies, but doesn’t fight back the way it should and has no idea where it is going. But where he believes he could secure its long-term future by giving it a new national Jewish direction, his critics maintain that his narrow nationalistic approach would destroy the universal humanist element essential for Zionism’s success, and lead to international ostracism and ruin.
As “Feiglinism” spreads inside and outside the Likud, the struggle between the Feiglinites and their opponents is part of a wider struggle for Israel’s soul.