Feiglin has already won in the 2019 elections

Either by accident or as the result of a political acumen we didn’t know he possessed, Feiglin has managed to inject his ideas into the mainstream of Israeli politics.

Tzvi Lev

OpEds Marijuana in Israel
Marijuana in Israel

This past week, Israelis all across the country found themselves inconvenienced due to a sudden strike by Israel Railways personnel.

The background to the work stoppages would be laughable were it not so infuriating. Under the terms of their contracts, motormen and conductors on Israel Railways trains must work 8.5 hour shifts. In practice, however, the shifts only average 3.5 hours. Now, management wants to extend the shifts to 4 hours, a time period that is still half of the shifts the employees are getting paid for.

Yet this change was greeted by Israel’s powerful Histadrut labor union as a declaration of war. Claiming that the extra half hour constituted a “worsening of conditions” that infringed on the rights of its union members, the Histadrut demanded higher pay and extra rest for drivers.

When Israel Railways management refused, the results were predictable: In their customary thuggish way, the Histadrut began ratcheting up the work stoppages. What began as a flurry of drivers calling in sick deteriorated into a full-blown strike, with tens of thousands of Israelis unable to get to work over the past few days due to the Histadrut’s characteristic policies of extortion.

Unfortunately, work stoppages are not unusual in 2019’s Israel. The enormous power wielded by labor unions is a major reason, if not the main reason, why Israel’s economy suffers from low productivity and was recently ranked a low 49 among 190 economies in the World Bank’s "ease of doing business" index.

What is unusual, however, was the response the Israel Railways strike received. Rather than making the back pages of the newspaper if at all, the Histadrut was blasted by prominent right-wing politicians from a plethora of political parties. Prime Minister Netanyahu himself took to Facebook to blast Blue and White’s candidate for Finance Minister, current Histadrut leader Avi Nissenkoren, for the strike and accused him of destroying Israel’s economy.

“Nissenkorn, Lapid’s and Gantz’s [candidate for] finance minister, will put the whole country on strike,” wrote Netanyahu.  “He will take us back to the Histadrut economy that would hurt us all. That must not be allowed to happen. We have to keep moving forward with a right-wing Likud government — a free economy that opens up the market to competition and reduces prices for the benefit of the citizens.”

Netanyahu’s enmity vis a vis the Histadrut does not come in a vacuum. Throughout the past week, politicians such as Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked and other lawmakers have laid into Nissenkoren and the Histadrut, catapulting the thuggish behavior of Israel’s largest labor union into a main election story.

Such is the wave of negative sentiment towards the Histadrut  that the Generals leading Blue and White reportedly regret giving Nissenkoren such a prominent position on their Knesset slate, as internal polling shows that he is causing voters to jump ship. In fact, former IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi was trotted out before the media this week in order to reassure the Israeli public that the Histadrut wouldn’t be ruling the roost should the trio of Gantz, Lapid, and Ya’alon form the next government.

“We don’t intend to implement the policies of the Histadrut in Blue and White,” said Ashkenazi. “We don’t intend for Blue and White to have a culture of unions.”

The sudden focus on the labor unions and free-market economics is a direct result of Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut party. Despite operating on a shoestring budget, ignored by virtually all the pollsters until recently, and derided by the commentariat as a bunch of crazies, Zehut has consistently crossed the electoral threshold in ten of the last 15 polls.

No politician wants to be on the wrong side of the pro-marijuana wave rolling over Israel that was sparked by Feiglin’s Zehut party.
As surveys show the right and left wing electoral blocs in a virtual 61-61 tie, the man described by Haaretz as a “pro-Marijuana crackpot” suddenly appears as the kingmaker in the upcoming April elections. As a result, the right-wing and left-wing parties have vowed to destroy Feiglin and have launched an all-out effort to end Zehut’s improbable showing.

On the Left, the fear is that Zehut will scuttle their dream of sending Netanyahu home. On the right, the United Right Party, Naftali Bennett’s New Rght and the other rightist parties are sharpening knives amid polls showing that Feiglin is taking away some of their voter base. Yet after a week of verbal volleys and brutal political attacks, not only hasn’t Zehut cratered in the polls but its mix of nationalism, marijuana legalization, and free-market libertarianism have turned into major wedge issues.

Suddenly, Bennett is telling voters that only the New Right will fight the Histadrut and implement conservative economic politics. Suddenly, the Likud is running paid ads attacking Lapid and Gantz for being “weak on the economy,” and highlighting quotes from a Haaretz writer stating that “Nissenkorn supported all the big, fat unions in the market and led to higher prices in food, imports, electricity, housing and more”.

The Israeli Right’s using the free market as a campaign issue is solely due to Feiglin’s success in bringing the issue to the mainstream. Yet Feiglin’s contribution to the current political dialogue around free markets pales in comparison to his work at advancing the cause of marijunana legalization.

Until this election, no major party ever supported legalization marijuana besides the Green Leaf party, a faction derided as a collection of pot-smoking hippies. In the past week, however, the media spotlight enjoyed by Feiglin has catapulted legalization into the top issue of the day, with an assortment of lawmakers all across the spectrum calling for the drug to be legalized without limiting it to medical purposes.

Within the past 48 hours alone, Prime Minister Netanyahu has said that he will examine legalizing marijuana, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon wants pot convictions expunged from the criminal record, Gesher leader and lawmaker Orli Levy-Abeksis wants the drug legalized as well. Afraid of being left out, Labor leader Avi Gabbay ran to tell the media that he smoked pot in the past, while Blue and White refused to rule out the idea.

Only Betzalel Smotrich of the United Right Religious Zionist party refused to join the show and said that legalizing marijuana for non-medical purposes is "life-endangering, a kind of cheap populism" and that even if the age of users were limitied, it would spiral out of control, act as a gateway drug and inevitably lead to young children using it. 

If Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid was forced to downplay his marijuana usage after joining politics in 2012, today no politician wants to be on the wrong side of the pro-marijuana wave rolling over Israel that was sparked by Feiglin’s Zehut party.

In recent years, Israeli politics seemed like a tired screenplay. The Left accused the Right of destroying democracy, the Right hinted that the Left are traitors, haredim were also demeaned as “parasites” and the Arab parties were called a disloyal fifth column. This feeling of Deja Vu is now a thing of the past.

Either by accident or as the result of a political acumen we didn’t know he possessed, Feiglin has managed to inject his ideas into the mainstream of Israeli politics. The debates now revolve around him and his ideas. Perhaps he chose them with that in mind. The political outcast, who vainly attempted to wrest control of the Likud before striking out on his own, is now driving the exchange of ideas more than Prime Minister Netanyahu and the cadre of former IDF generals.

As any veteran political campaigner can testify, a central part of defeating your opponent is controlling which issues are talked about and which are left unsaid. Using this definition, Feiglin - or at least his platform - has won the April elections outright.

He’s moved ideas that weeks ago were seen as outside the pale into the mainstream of public discourse, and all this within the time span of two weeks. It’s too early to know who the next prime minister will be or if Zehut will even pass the electoral threshold but Feiglin has managed to promote his ideas more successfully than some of Israel’s most veteran politicians.