Middle Israel: Why Moshe Feiglin matters

At stake is a lot more than one man's location on one party's list of candidates.

amotz asa el 88 (photo credit: )
amotz asa el 88
(photo credit: )
The demon, as far as Bibi Netanyahu is concerned, has been exorcised. Moshe Feiglin, the diminutive, bespectacled, French-bearded, fire-spewing caricature of a fascist who has infiltrated the Likud's list of Knesset candidates, has been rolled down to its bottom, as the devil would have been had he dared emerge among the angels climbing Jacob's ladder. If it's up to Bibi, we would all forget we ever saw what his political kimono has just unveiled. Alas, even people who ordinarily don't care much for politics were absorbed by Netanyahu's fixation with this man, and delve into the thick of this affair. And their conclusion, unlike Netanyahu's, has been that Feiglin actually matters. Feiglin matters not because of his views, which are neither original nor popular. Feiglin matters because at stake here is something larger than one individual's location on one party's list of candidates. In fact, both the emergence and the handling of the Feiglin phenomenon offer a metaphor for the entire political system's growing decay. THE FEIGLIN plot begins with his smooth infiltration of a party where he does not belong. According to his Hebrew Web site, he believes in loyalty to the Torah, itself an inclination alien to the Likud's original inspiration, Vladimir Jabotinsky. Moreover, even within the narrow confines of Orthodoxy, Feiglin addresses what he calls the emuni public as his hard-core constituency, which is code language for a theology that believes in the Jewish state's divinity, and yearns for the day when it is led either by rabbis or people agreeable to them. That's not Likud. Such an outlook, quite regardless of what Feiglin intends to make (or break) of the Arabs, can fit with the ultra-nationalist religious parties. Likud's founders, from Menachem Begin and Elimelech Rimalt to Ariel Sharon and Yigael Hurvitz, did not see things this way and neither did their voters. That's why they didn't vote for religious parties. Jabotinsky, a disciple of liberal nationalism's prophet Giuseppe Mazzini, was in fact so secular that he even mulled replacing the Hebrew alphabet with Latin characters. In fact, at one point, in 1931, he shunned an alliance with Orthodox Zionism that could have secured him the leadership of the Zionist movement. Jabotinsky believed in a firm separation of religion and state, as did his disciples, even if while building coalitions they had to compromise this principle. As for the Arabs, Jabotinski made it plain that in the prospective Jewish state (which he did not live to see) citizenship would matter more than nationality, and an Arab would in principle also be eligible to be elected its leader. And Likud always believed in obeying the government of Israel, even when disagreeing with it, rather than twist its arm the way Feiglin tried to do when he and his friends obstructed traffic on main highways during the Oslo days, or the way leftist activists routinely do when they try to damage the West Bank fence. And Likud respected the Supreme Court, as Begin memorably did when he said: "There are judges in Jerusalem." Feiglin, in sum, fits in the Likud about as naturally as Mahatma Gandhi would in the National Rifle Association, or Pat Robertson in a gay parade, or Rabbi Ovadia Yosef on the pope's balcony overlooking St. Peter's Square. Then again, Netanyahu's handing of this challenge was no less bizarre, and indeed more alarming, than Feiglin's knavery. A NORMAL GROUP of people who gather based on shared ideas realize immediately the arrival in their midst of someone who does not share their ideas, and politely ask him to leave them alone. Netanyahu and the party he has been heading for the past three years had ample time to expel Feiglin, but chose to tolerate his presence among them. Why? Because Likud shares Kadima's and Labor's reluctance to speak clearly, about anything, if it involves an electoral price. And so, rather than stand up and say "Feiglin believes in this and in that and also in that, but we in the Likud believe in that and in this and in this," Netanyahu chose the cowardly path, which was to manipulate Feiglin's plunge more than a dozen rungs down the candidate list, without ever explaining why this man is so disagreeable for him. Now one wonders: Do a candidate's views matter less the lower he is on a candidate list? Would, for instance, United Torah Judaism ever think of placing in its 36th slot someone who eats pork and preaches premarital sex, just because there is no chance he will be elected? Of course it wouldn't, because UTJ knows full well what it stands for and will not compromise it, even seemingly, theoretically or momentarily. Can the Likud say the same about itself? Will, then, the soon-to-be ruling party tell us, at least now, just what it meant in its decision to neither digest nor vomit its elected No. 20 candidate, Moshe Feiglin? FEIGLIN'S CHALLENGE was not only ideological. Besides latching onto a party whose DNA he resolved to deny, he came there flanked by several hundred supporters. The thinking was simple: The way Israeli politics is structured, one does not need to seize the entire country, but only one major party, who cares which; and to seize a party all you need is a compact army of disciplined loyalists who will be deployed simultaneously whenever and wherever told, whether by voting, cheering or heckling. Of course, had we had a normal political system, Feiglin would have to get really elected, in a district and by a real constituency of a good 40,000 diverse residents, a task at which he would have likely failed. But in our system all he needs is several thousand people's backing in a primary election that makes a mockery of the concept of party membership, and then leads people into the Knesset on the back of the party leader, who is the one that the public considers when deciding which party to vote for. Had our political system been healthy, it would have detected and fended off in advance such attacks on it. Alas, Israel's political immune system is increasingly failing the way the Weimar Republic's did in its time. The signs of political decadence in recent years are famous: The ruling parties' following shrank by more than 30 percent, voter turnout dropped from more than 80% to less than 65%, ministerial turnover became dizzying and governmental delivery eroded, while nonentities - from Gonen Segev and Amir Peretz to Avraham Hirchson and Moshe Katsav - reached positions of great power where they inflicted great damage. Moshe Feiglin emerges from the same political decay that gave rise to all these, but he represents an entirely different character, one that rather than be in it for himself is bent on steering the country in a certain direction, one that Middle Israelis flatly reject, but the soon-to-be ruling party is too shallow to debate, and too weak to resist, even while this political alien nests in its own arterial system. This is why, despite what Likud's leaders will tell you, Moshe Feiglin matters.