Potential Kingmaker in Israel's Election Offers a Package of Thatcherism Plus Third Temple

Zehut leader Moshe Feiglin and his candidate for finance minister discuss their eclectic platform with TheMarker

Moshe Feiglin at a campaign rally, Be'er Sheva, March 6, 2019.
\ Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Just as the interview with Moshe Feiglin, leader of the dark-horse Zehut (Hebrew for "identity") Party, was winding up at a WeWork shared office space in Tel Aviv, none other than Moshe Hogeg showed up.

Besides the same first name, the two men have much in common.

Hogeg, a venture capitalist and declared supporter of Feiglin, is regarded as a strange bird in the world of Israeli high-tech, despite backing some well-known startups and raising tens of millions of dollars. Feiglin is regarded as an outlier in Israeli politics, despite a term in the Knesset and two stabs at Likud leadership, including one in which he captured a quarter of the vote.

>> Forget marijuana, Feiglin’s been smoking some pretty strong ideological stuff | Opinion 

Despite his outsider reputation, or perhaps because of it, Feiglin’s Zehut Party has emerged as more of a vote-getter ahead of the April 9 election than factions led by more established politicians, such as Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu Party or Orly Levy-Abekasis’s Gesher.

Indeed, the four Knesset seats that polls show Zehut winning could make it the decisive factor in forming the next government.

Although Zehut is conventionally deemed to be on the right, in an interview with TheMarker, Feiglin forcefully denies that. He also declines to comment on any contracts he might be having either with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud or Benny Gantz’s Blue and White alliance and hits out at both Kahlon and Avi Nissenkorn, the prospective Blue and White finance minister. 

“What’s the difference between Moshe Kahlon’s socialism and Gantz’s socialism? On one side of the map you have the Histadrut and Avi Nissenkorn and on the other side you have [Labor Minister] Haim Katz and the big workers’ committees,” said Feiglin.

“It’s one big bloc of insiders and the well-connected who exploit their status at the expense of the next generation. I hope that Zehut tips the balance enough to restore the country to those who don’t belong to the first and second generation of workers and all of those on the inside who benefit from favoritism.”

Gilad Alper, a financial analyst who works for the investment house Excellence and is Zehut’s choice for finance minister, agrees. “It’s not my dream to be in the Likud – except in my worst nightmares.”

Still, Feiglin himself doesn’t think the prime minister has committed any crimes and presumably would sit in a Netanyahu-led government. “Netanyahu’s lifestyle is really not my cup of tea, I know Netanyahu very well -- he is indeed a hedonist and a strategic disaster, but he is not corrupt,” he told TheMarker.

Zehut’s party platform defies then conventional Israeli left-right divide.

It does hold some extreme right-wing views. It calls for “ending the occupation and establishing sovereignty throughout our land,” wants to move the seat of government to Jerusalem’s Old City astride the Temple Mount and rebuilt the Temple itself.

On socioeconomic issues, Zehut has a place on the political spectrum all its own and most of the party’s platform is devoted to those issues.

Among other things, it calls for the public school system to be replaced by private institutions and vouchers issued by the government to parents to cover tuition. Zehut also wants to privatize government hospitals, although with the proviso they don’t reduce services or raise prices. Feiglin would also privatize the National Insurance Institute’s services.

In his view, the only free industry in Israel today is high-tech.

Feiglin and Alper said the party is attracting younger voters from all parts of the political spectrum – a claim that pollsters confirm. The party’s appeal may be due less to its anti-establishment image than to its specific policies.

“Our advantage is that Zehut is a new broom. We don’t owe anything to anyone, like Kahlon, Netanyahu, Gantz and [Yair] Lapid do,” Feiglin said.” At the same time, a young generation is emerging here that understands what we’re talking about. They are giving us a tailwind, and we give them hope. “

Do you see the U.S. economy as your role model? Or is there another economy that approximates your model?

Feiglin: Perhaps the economy America once was.”

Alper: Switzerland. It’s considered the most liberal economy in Europe. It’s a very rich country. We want to adopt several of the main elements of the Swiss economy.

“They have a different political system – a system of cantons. That’s a system based on communities. But it’s not just cantons that enjoy independence, also cities and villages. Most Swiss don’t even know the same of the president.”

What makes Zehut different from Likud?

Feiglin: “Mainly the issue of economic freedom, which hurts ordinary Israelis who don’t have connections. The country has too many regulations that hurt small businesses and are designed to help the big companies .They have reams of lawyers and accountants, they invest in lobbying, and in rules that hurt the ordinary man who has no time, no connections and no lawyers.

“We want [Israel] to be like Denmark – a country that is in the third place on international indices for the ease of doing business while Israel is 49th. I don’t see people in Denmark dying of food poisoning, businesses don’t crash and buildings don’t collapse despite the ease of regulation. We just want to adopt things that exist successfully in other countries. This is the entire radical vision of the ‘crazy’ Zehut party.”

As to rebuilding the Temple, Alper – who is secular – says that’s not something the party aims to bring up for a Knesset vote.

Citing what he said was Feiglin’s view on the matter, Alper said: “If the temple is rebuilt, it will be part of a religious awakening – another 100 or 200 years. It’s not a political vision. For a religious person to think of a Temple as something you approve in a Knesset vote is blasphemy.”