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Reshuffling the Right in Israel

As the Likud Party sits on a dominant lead in the polls, attention turns to Israel’s political Right — and especially its far Right. The National-Religious camp has regrouped, unifying its various parties and dumping its former leadership, which was always perceived as bureaucratic, not terribly ideological, or alternatively messianic and alienating to mainstream Israelis.

The most important newcomer on Israel’s political scene is Daniel Hershkowitz, who was just named leader of the newly constituted Jewish Home party. Hershkowitz is both a rabbi and a scholar. He is a senior mathematician at the Technion, Israel’s equivalent of MIT. Though he is keeping his specific political views close to his chest, he has earned a reputation in the northern part of the country as a warm and caring personality, someone who knows how to translate classic Jewish values and texts into an idiom palatable for secular Israelis. The prospect of a real political outsider with both rabbinic and mainstream bona fides makes his appointment a fascinating development, though time will tell how he withstands the withering trials of a political campaign. Stay tuned.

The other major development is the drama surrounding Moshe Feiglin, whose “Jewish Leadership” movement has been trying for over a decade to make inroads within the Likud itself. In this week’s Likud primary, Feiglin won the 20th spot on the party’s list for the Knesset — making it look like he was a shoo-in for the Knesset.

But Feiglin is a nightmare for Likud’s leader, Benjamin Netanyahu. Feiglin’s views have moderated in recent years, but he still holds positions that are far from mainstream: He favors Israel’s pulling out of the UN, he sharply opposes any peace negotiations based on giving up land, and though he has distanced himself from the forcible transfer of Palestinians out of the West Bank that was first popularized by Rabbi Meir Kahane, he still calls for reducing their population by paying off Palestinians willing to emigrate. Rightly or wrongly, Feiglin has been for the Left what Yossi Beilin was for the Right: A lightning rod, a symbol of all that is monstrous, a name you can roll off your tongue and pluralize with pleasure: All those Feiglins. The name even recalls a Dickensian villain, something the erudite Left has used to its advantage.

This isn’t what Bibi needs. For years he has worked to disperse suspicions that he is a fig-leaf for the settler movement, to convince Israelis of the political center that he cannot be held responsible for the Rabin assassination, that he is committed to peace and eventual withdrawal from the West Bank, that he is a plausible leader for the country. So immediately following the primary, he fired back, and the Likud has just concocted a complex technical excuse to bump him down to the 36th spot — making his Knesset entry far less likely. This is major hardball, a transparent effort to ignore the voters’ wishes. But it also may be the Likud’s only hope of keeping its legitimacy in the eyes of mainstream Israelis, who were so impressed with the new roster of well-liked figures like Moshe Yaalon and Benny Begin.


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