At the end of February, Israel’s political parties braced themselves for an electoral shake-out after Israel’s attorney general announced his intention to indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on charges of breach of trust or bribery in three separate cases. Two weeks later, the Justice Ministry announced that the last set of evidentiary hearings before Netanyahu is formally indicted will take place after election day, and it is now clear that the attorney general’s announcement had a minute effect on campaign dynamics.
Before the attorney general announced his intention to indict the prime minister, Netanyahu’s Likud party was receiving about 30 votes in the polls. Polls predicted Netanyahu’s coalition allies, smaller right-wing and religious parties to win another 31-32 seats, giving Netanyahu and his allies a bare majority in the next knesset.
Two weeks later, some pollsters suggest that the Likud may have lost two seats, but collectively the religious and right-wing parties are now expected to win as many as 64 votes. One might infer that the Likud has lost a few voters as a result of the indictments to other parties on the right, but the main reason the Likud’s allies have seen their fortunes go up has to do with a very small party that had largely been ignored by pundits: Zehut, led by former Likud MP Moshe Feiglin.
Feiglin first rose to prominence after leading protests against the Oslo Accords. After a joining the Likud and challenging Netanyahu’s leadership of the party in 2005, 2007 and 2012, Feiglin started his own party. He is attracting attention during this campaign thanks to his emphasis on legalizing marijuana as part of a larger platform of quasi-libertarian free market reforms fused with strident nationalism. Feiglin opposes the Chief Rabbinate’s control over marriage, but also rejects non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, and believes that only Orthodox conversions to Judaism should be recognized. Less prominently, Zehut’s lengthy manifesto supports the annexation of the West Bank, the building of a Third Temple in Jerusalem, and limits on the attorney general and the Israeli Supreme Court’s powers to check parliamentary sovereignty.
Courted briefly by other right-wing parties concerned that Zehut would fail to cross the threshold, Zehut was largely ignored until polls started regularly showing that Zehut’s support exceeded the 3.25 per cent threshold. In response, Netanyahu and some of centrist rivals articulated support for the legalization of cannabis, causing commentators on both the right and left to note that Feiglin may already be the big winner of this election campaign.
Other parties on the right have begun to attack Feiglin’s cannabis legalization, security and economic plans as irresponsible. However, no matter how hard the other right wing parties attack him now, even Feiglin’s harshest critics on the right might be forced to capitulate to his policy demands on cannabis (or other issues) if Zehut’s delegation is necessary for the right- and religious- parties to assemble a 61 seat majority coalition.
Even though a narrow right- and religious- party coalition would be similar to the government that led Israel until elections were called in December, the combination of Zehut and the Kahanists in the new government would likely pull Israeli government policy much further to the right. This would be especially true if two parties who primarily appeal to Mizrahi voters with relatively more centrist policies on economics and security issues, the ultra-Orthodox Shas and Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu, fail to cross the threshold. In any case, with only three weeks to go to election day, attention has shifted away from Netanyahu and the centrist generals challenging him from the left to minute shifts in opinion on the far right that could have far reaching implications for post-election government policies.