A Pro-Pot Candidate Could Prove Decisive in Israeli Election

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KIRYAT GAT, Israel — The surprise candidate shaking up the last days of the campaign before Israelis head to the polls on Tuesday is a far-right nationalist libertarian who advocates small government, legalizing marijuana and a free-market economy.

While the candidate, Moshe Feiglin, the leader of the Zehut party, remains on the fringes in the election, his message is attracting enough young and disaffected voters that he could emerge as kingmaker in a close race between the two main contenders, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz, a former army chief. Under Israel’s parliamentary system, even a few seats could be enough to give one side or the other a majority coalition.

While the pro-marijuana stance has received some notice, it is his economic message that is resonating with young voters who are fed up with Israel’s same-old politics and exorbitant cost of living.

“I don’t smoke,” said Dor Thaler, 24, who runs an e-commerce business and was attending a recent town hall meeting in Kiryat Gat, a working-class town in southern Israel. “But I like everything else about his platform.”

An iconoclastic pied piper, Mr. Feiglin, 56, is pledging to upend the customs and tax system by introducing a flat tax and gradually eliminating import duties and quotas. He wants to privatize hospitals and dismantle the state monopoly over land distribution, which he says will create affordable housing.

His political agenda tends toward an extreme nationalism that critics call dangerous: He advocates a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (that would be one Jewish state) and the takeover by Israel’s rabbinical authorities of Jerusalem’s most contested holy site — the sacred compound revered by Jews as the Temple Mount and by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary. He also proposes eventually rebuilding the Jewish temple there.

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The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, part of what Muslims call the Noble Sanctuary and what Jews refer to as the Temple Mount. Mr. Feiglin has called for Israel’s rabbinical authorities to take over the site.CreditUriel Sinai for The New York Times

His platform, published as a 355-page book, titled “To Be a Free Jew: Operating Manual for the State of Israel,” topped the nonfiction best-seller list of a major Israeli book chain in late March.

At the town hall meeting in a dingy synagogue annex in Kiryat Gat he swept into the room to the chorus of a popular Israeli hit, “He Who Believes Does Not Fear.”

“There is a revolution here, a true revolution,” Mr. Feiglin said. “It’s so different,” he said, that young people are drawn to it “like butterflies to the light.”

Referring to the Palestinians as “tribes, Arabs or whatever,” he said Israel had lost its most important weapon, the justice of its cause. By endorsing a two-state solution that envisages a Palestinian state alongside Israel, he told his audience, “You have turned yourself into a colonialist and an invader in your own country.”

His alternative? Impose Israeli sovereignty on the West Bank and Gaza, provide assistance to Palestinians who want to emigrate, and grant permanent resident status to those who remain if they pledge allegiance to the Jewish state.

Critics view his agenda as a crazy hodgepodge of ideas bordering on the anarchic and Messianic.

“There isn’t enough space to fully describe Feiglin’s right-wing, ultranationalist and dangerous vision,” the liberal Haaretz newspaper warned in an editorial this week titled, “Joints on the Temple Mount.”

Mr. Feiglin, right center, campaigning at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem this month. His party is drawing support from young Israelis.CreditAmmar Awad/Reuters

It added, “Anyone who doesn’t fully subscribe to this vision ought to be wary of him.”

Young people, at least, are subscribing. Mr. Feiglin’s Zehut party finished second to Mr. Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party in a recent poll on university campuses by the National Union of Students.

On Tuesday, he received a rock-star reception at a concert venue in Tel Aviv, attended by some 2,000 supporters, for an appearance that was live-streamed on Facebook and received wide coverage in the mainstream news media. Two days later, he went on a bar crawl in a trendy area of downtown West Jerusalem. Appearing unannounced, he received a warm welcome in one establishment but was jeered at another.

In a pallid parade of establishment politicians Mr. Feiglin stands out as a colorful, convention-busting alternative, said Batia Siebzehner, a sociologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

“Today the elections are not about a worldview or political view, but about personalities,” Ms. Siebzehner said.

She described him as “a bit of a clown” and “a bit of a hippie,” but an extremist nonetheless.

“The somewhat Messianic vision of being on Temple Mount — I don’t think the young Israelis understand the consequences,” she said. “It’s a type of a gimmick. It’s a kind of revolt, a revolt against everything.”

Recent polls predict that Mr. Feiglin’s party could win from four to seven seats in the 120-seat Parliament. If the election is close enough, his bloc could determine who leads the next government.

Mr. Feiglin’s campaign platform, published as a book titled “To Be a Free Jew: Operating Manual for the State of Israel,” is a best seller in Israel.CreditDan Balilty for The New York Times

Mr. Netanyahu, who is facing corruption charges and battling for his political survival after a decade in power, is polling neck and neck with Mr. Gantz.

Mr. Feiglin has said he is willing to join whichever coalition makes him the best offer.

He is demanding the legalization of cannabis, the post of finance minister and, if his party wins enough votes, the education ministry too.

Mr. Feiglin has long been in the public eye as a far-right activist and leader of the “This Is Our Land” movement. In the 1990s, he was sentenced to six months in prison for sedition after protesters blocked roads throughout the country to try halt the Oslo peace process. In 2000, he joined Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party and failed in four bids to become party chairman. He was elected to Parliament in 2013 and served a two-year term.

[Israeli politics isn’t subtle. Read about how from the far left to the far right, political ads are aimed at riling up the base.]

He has long lobbied for the wider availability of medical cannabis and has spoken of how his wife uses the drug to alleviate the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. He now advocates freeing all cannabis from state control.

Israel partly decriminalized recreational use of marijuana in a law that took effect this week, imposing fines for possession but opening criminal proceedings only after a fourth offense. Cannabis promoters say that is not enough.

But legalization did not even come up in the Kiryat Gat meeting.

Mr. Feiglin talked about the high prices of groceries, his plans for breaking what he calls the state land cartel, and the Oslo accords, which he wants to abrogate.

“People think it’s all about legalization,” he said in a brief interview on his way out of the hall. “It’s not. It’s about all the rest.”

NYT > World

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