The Rebel Prince

I met Moshe Feiglin, today the rebel prince of Israel's Likud party, in September 1998, at the Jerusalem Convention Center. Fifteen hundred radical rightists were pouring into the big graceless lobby. They'd come for an annual convention dedicated to rebuilding the ancient Jewish Temple where the Dome of the Rock now stands. Pamphleteers from sundry splinter groups worked the crowd. I recognized Feiglin's face -- lean and hungry, with a close-trimmed beard -- from news stories. Before Yitzhak Rabin's assassination, Feiglin's Zo Artzeinu (This Is Our Land) movement had led stormy protests, including blocking major highways, in a bid to prevent Israel from ceding territory for peace.

In the lobby, he was handing out bumper stickers demanding "Jewish Leadership for Israel." I asked, "We don't have Jewish leaders?" Feiglin sneered, as if everyone knew better. Right-winger Benjamin Netanyahu, then prime minister, obviously didn't fit Feiglin's requirements.

The next spring, Feiglin's Jewish Leadership group made a brief, failed effort to run for the Knesset. Afterward, he chose a new strategy: Rather than remain head of a fringe party, he'd join the Likud. He'd get his supporters -- mostly hard-line settlers, like himself -- to sign up as members of the mainstream rightwing party, and he'd take it over. The scorpion would ride to power on the back of the tiger.

Today, he's closer to that goal than anyone expected. Netanyahu, it's true, is again the Likud's candidate for prime minister in the February election, and he's generally leading in the polls. Following the Likud's Dec. 8 primary for its Knesset candidates, however, Feiglin looks like the real power in the party. Though he himself is unlikely to enter the Knesset, he was able to exert more influence than Netanyahu did on the choice of candidates. The result is a slate of hard-right politicians indebted to Feiglin.

The idea of Netanyahu regaining power is disturbing enough. He supports West Bank settlement unreservedly and hopes to avoid substantive peace talks with the Palestinians. Economically, he is a doctrinaire free-marketeer. But a party beholden to Feiglin is a whole different level of danger. It's the difference between mere conservatives and the far fringe of the right.

If there's any reason for optimism, it's the possibility that Feiglin is already scaring center-right voters away from the Likud. This week's polls show the Likud marginally losing support. That may be a temporary dip -- or the start of a trend. Perhaps the scorpion has stung the tiger.

Until recently, Feiglin hasn't hidden his goals. On the Jewish Leadership website, a Hebrew document proposes principles for a constitution for Israel. It would include a high rabbinic court, chosen only by clergy, that would overturn any legislation it saw as contradicting Jewish religious law. A newly established senate, with a guaranteed Jewish majority of over 80 percent, would have to consult the rabbinic court on all national issues. Israel would lay claim not only to the West Bank and Gaza, but also to all of Jordan.

An article by Feiglin on the group's website, describing what he'd do if he gained power, has been blocked to public access since the Likud primary. In it, one step he proposes is holding a ceremony at every army base in which all non-lethal weaponry would be destroyed. Faced with Palestinian demonstrators, soldiers could only shoot to kill. On Jewish Leadership's English website, another Feiglin tract contrasts parliamentary democracy with an "authentic Jewish regime" that would express the "organic unity of the Nation of Israel." Put simply, Feiglin's ideology is the meeting point of fundamentalism and fascism.

Feiglin's strategy for conquering the Likud exploits the structure of Israeli politics. In national elections for the 120-member Knesset, voters cast a single ballot for a party. If a party wins 10 percent of the vote, the first 12 candidates on its slate will enter parliament. The head of the largest party in the Knesset normally becomes prime minister. The head of the party and the rest of the slate are chosen by a relatively small number of dues-paying party members. A well-organized, disciplined group that turns out in high numbers can have disproportionate influence.

Last summer, the Likud held a primary for party leader. Less than 40,000 people voted. Netanyahu won 73 percent to Feiglin's 23 percent -- a showing for the far-rightist that Netanyahu found embarrassing and threatening.

In the general election, Netanyahu's main rival for the premiership is Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, head of the centrist Kadima party. A marketing executive before he went into politics, Netanyahu has tried to rebrand himself and his party as pragmatic center-rightists. To do so, he sought respected figures, perceived as moderates, to run for the Knesset slate -- a popular ex-chief of the national police, Asaf Hefetz; retired general Uzi Dayan; a famous ex-basketball player, Tal Brody. He even brought back former finance minister Dan Meridor, who left the Likud in disgust during Netanyahu's term as prime minister.

Before the party's vote for Knesset candidates, Netanyahu encouraged Likud members to vote for his recruits. Feiglin, meanwhile, endorsed a list of candidates including well-known party hardliners outside his own circle.

Feiglin won. The top of the Likud ticket is dominated by hardliners in debt to Feiglin. Of Netanyahu's moderate recruits, only Meridor placed high enough to enter the Knesset.

Feiglin himself was initially placed in the 20th slot on the party slate, a stunning victory for the insurgent. Exploiting arcane technicalities in party rules, Netanyahu backers managed to move him far enough down that he's unlikely to enter the Knesset. It's a cosmetic shift. Feiglin retains considerable pull within the party's Knesset delegation. Feiglin won't be able to introduce his proposal for a theocratic constitution. But if Netanyahu becomes prime minister, he'll know that any sign of foreign-policy moderation, even if wholly intended as spin, will provoke a rebellion of backbenchers. An attempt to make compromises -- with the Palestinians or Syria -- could split the party.

Are voters noticing? The past week's polls show gains for Kadima and losses for the Likud. A survey for the daily Ma'ariv has the two parties running even. A week earlier, the Likud led by three Knesset seats. The change could be statistical noise, or momentary disgust with front-page pictures of a smiling Feiglin -- or the first sign that swing voters are abandoning the Likud. Complicating matters is the end of the ceasefire with Hamas in Gaza, which will have unpredictable electoral impact.

This much is clear: The campaign packaging for the Likud will show Netanyahu's face. In his modulated MBA voice, he'll try to sell the Likud to voters as a pragmatic conservative party, willing to make peace if only the Palestinians agree to its conditions. Inside the package, however, is a party in thrall to a lean and hungry man offering extremist leadership for Israel. The question is whether voters will look inside, or care.

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