Israel’s libertarian moment

As Israel’s elections approach, the political campaigns have largely been focused on security issues. However, the rise of Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut is a sign that issues relating to individual and financial freedom are gaining in popularity.

Moshe Feiglin. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Moshe Feiglin. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Dennis Mitzner

Political parties are in full swing to sway the masses in a last-minute attempt to make the threshold or win a plurality of the votes in Israel’s 120-seat Knesset on April 9.

In Israel, security issues are at the forefront of every national campaign with the dichotomy “right-is-strong” and “left-is-weak” dominating political ads. While security is important to the average voter, Israelis are also living in an unprecedented time of peace, tranquility and prosperity. Of course, the next conflict is always around the corner, but Israelis have had a dose of normalcy in the last few decades, thus shifting some of the public imagination and focus on economic and social issues.

Speaking at the Economic Club of Washington in March 2018, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that he wishes to be remembered “as the defender of Israel and the liberator of its economy.”

Audiences home and abroad are used to hearing Netanyahu use his public appearances to discuss the many security threats Israel is facing—namely, Iran; its proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon; and the Palestinians. Netanyahu’s wish to be remembered as the defender of Israel came as no surprise. His wish to be remembered as a liberator of Israel’s economy was a reminder where the country was in the early 2000s and where it stands today.

In 2010, speaking to Fox Business, the prime minister confirmed his commitment to reforms that would further liberate the country from the socialist shackles of the past.

“We’ve essentially become an export-driven, high-tech economy that has a very open marketplace. Not open enough. That’s actually our strategic opportunity for growth. That is, if you’re lucky enough to have a lot of bureaucratic controls, by removing them, you actually get added growth. And that’s the secret of what you do in an advanced economy and you want to keep it growing after it has reached $30,000 per capita income.”

Largely alone with his free-market ideas, Netanyahu cannot rely on Likud to put serious fiscal reforms on the top of the governing agenda.

Again, addressing his cabinet in 2016, Netanyahu made clear what the focus on his government should be.

“A main goal of this government is to reduce the excessive regulatory burden in Israel. … The greatest reform that we in the Cabinet could enact is to reduce the regulatory burden on doing business in Israel and on the government administration,” he said.

Netanyahu has held the premiership since 2008, and served as finance minister in Ariel Sharon’s government from 2003 until 2005. The reforms he hammered through during this two-year period are largely to thank for that Israel was able steer clear of the global recession of 2008.

Sharon’s government—with Netanyahu spearheading the reforms—cut taxes, reduced social programs, privatized government-owned companies and reformed the overgrown pension funds.

Since taking over as prime minister in 2008, Israel’s economy has been one of the great success stories in a world that until very recently was mired in economic malaise. Israel’s GDP has grown an average of 3 percent or more, the rate of unemployment is at its lowest in the country’s history, Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox are joining the workforce in record numbers, and the national debt is at a historic low.

Reforms and opposition

Considering that being Israeli was synonymous with being socialist until the late 1980s, it’s a miracle that Netanyahu has managed to move the country towards the idea that wealth creation is not a sin. After all, the country was founded by socialists whose ideological offspring still dominate much of Israel’s public sector.

Even with all the successful reforms of the past 20 years, few Israelis would identify as free-marketers.

For the average Israeli, the prices for goods and services keep rising with the purchasing power lagging behind most OECD countries. What’s more, the port and food monopolies have only been partially dismantled, not broken, and the cost of living keeps skyrocketing.

Most, if not all, parties in Israel argue, campaign and devise political platforms along tribal lines.

The nation’s educational system—a procurer of culture and values—is very much in the hands of old-school socialist types. Most children grow up indifferent to economic matters or adapt their parents views, which usually have a leftward tilt. In Israel, to be a free-marketer is to be an outsider. There are few public figures in Israeli public life who are actively preaching the values of individual rights and free-market policies.

Even with his accomplishments, Netanyahu is not generally thought of, at least domestically, as an economic mastermind. He is either despised by the fast-shrinking left or viewed as too corrupt by others. Many of his detractors simply want a new face at the helm of the country.

Some of his supporters aren’t enthusiastic about him either, but will vote for him for the simple (or simplistic) reason that “there is no alternative.” Bibi, as his campaign slogans declare, is in a league of his own.

It’s tempting to agree with the sentiment that there is no alternative. Netanyahu looks and acts like a statesman, the kind we associate with silver-haired American politicians with $500 haircuts, while his opponents in the Blue and White Party are stumbling from one gaffe and conspiracy theory to another, and consequently, are dropping in the polls. The party leader, Benny Gantz, a decorated general, is void of a distinct agenda, and his platform seems to be the brainchild of political consultants who feed him rhetorical flowers that sound as false as they are inauthentic.

Even Likud, Netanyahu’s own party, is filled with high-profile politicians whose views are antithetical to free-market thinking. Haim Katz, an ardent defender of unions, has been actively trying to keep free-market voices such as Knesset member Sharren Haskell out of the party, whereas another fellow unionist and Katz ally, Etti Attiya, is likely to enter the Knesset. The current Minister of Public Security, Strategic Affairs and Information Gilad Erdan is an advocate of the so-called “Facebook Law” that would allow the government to remove content online deemed to be a threat to national security. As for Gantz’s Blue and White, Avi Nissenkorn, a union chief, is No. 5 on the party’s candidate list.

For free-marketers, Israel’s political environment is rough and unforgiving terrain.

The Feiglin factor

Enter Zehut, a nationalist libertarian party rising in the polls. At the helm is Moshe Feiglin, a familiar name in Israeli public discourse. An air of mystery surrounds Feiglin, who is viewed with cautious interest by many, on the right and left. Even those who do not plan to vote for his nationalist libertarian party think of him as highly intelligent, but dangerous due to his intention to build the third Temple in Jerusalem.

However, for Feiglin’s more secular supporters, when asked about his desire to build the temple and potentially set the world alight, the answer is a dismissive and sardonic: Let’s talk about it when it happens. The answer is reminiscent of a famous Netanyahu interview with Bill Maher in which Maher questioned Netanyahu for accepting the support of American evangelical Christians whose real goal, according to Maher, was to see the second coming of Jesus resulting in Jews converting to Christianity. Bibi’s response? We’ll talk about it when it happens.

Indeed, Zehut is garnering interest and votes because voters are agreeing with the party agenda more than they are disagreeing. It’s a game of pick and choose. Israel’s electoral system is flawed, and voters are forced to vote for party lists compiled behind closed rooms. Those looking for ideological purity or consistency better not show up to vote.

Even with all the successful reforms of the past 20 years, few Israelis would identify as free-marketers.

Feiglin, an Orthodox Jew, has stormed the national consciousness with his free-market ideas, including the legalization of cannabis, strong emphasis on national security and individual liberty. The Zehut list is a who’s who of Israel’s tiny libertarian club.

School-voucher advocate Libby Molad, recently praised by objectivist thinker Yaron Brook, and Gilad Alper, a free-market economist, are on top of the list of candidates. The party also includes Rabbi Haim Amsalem, former Shas Knesset member and chairman of the Am Shalem movement, a champion of themes that fight religious coercion. All three candidates seem to fit comfortably into Feiglin’s tent of libertarian misfits.

Some in Israel have lamented Zehut for shameless opportunism for compiling a list of political rivals who share nothing in common. Medical cannabis activist Gadi Wilcherski is one of Zehut’s magnets to sway the urban vote. It is doubtful that Feiglin and Wilcherski share much in common in their personal lives: One is a Tel Aviv urbanite, and the other lives a desolate life far from the country’s secular hub.

In the Israeli political scene, Zehut is an anomaly. The party leader, an Orthodox Jew, wants to rebuild the third temple, yet has a listed a member who speaks out against circumcision, which is a fundamental tenet of Judaism.

However, much like the fundamental principles of libertarianism, Feiglin is showing Israelis that private life is different from public life, and many of Zehut’s campaign slogans emphasize the need to end coercion. Slogans such as “I am emphatically opposed to any coercion, certainly to religious coercion” or “I want you to be who you are!” focus on the individual, not the state or the collective. Netanyahu’s Likud, on the other hand, touts slogans such as “Strong Likud, Strong Israel.”

Most, if not all, parties in Israel argue, campaign and devise political platforms along tribal lines.

They attempt to capture votes based on the particular “tribe” they are expected to represent: the left, the right, the center, the Ashkenazim, the Sephardim, the ultra-Orthodox, the national-religious Zionists or the Arabs.

Much like Zehut’s platform and its diverse list of candidates suggests, a religious Jew can be opposed to the state enforcing religion on the population, an Arab can be a Zionist, and someone on the right can support the legalization of cannabis. Zehut, with its emphasis on no-coercion, is attempting to cut through the tribal identities to reach the core of the individual.

In Israel, to be a free-marketer is to be an outsider.

Zehut, with the no-coercion policy at the very heart of its platform, wants to radically transform Israel’s education system by emulating the U.S. voucher program and enact sweeping free-market economic policies as well as end the issuing of biometric passports.

“The more ‘rights’ that we demand of the state, the more that we are depositing in its hands, and essentially giving up our liberties. When I was asked about equality as opposed to liberty, I answered that equality can only be found in the line for bread in the Soviet Union. Zehut strives for prosperity and quality of life, not equality,” said Feiglin in a speech in January.

Moshe the Kingmaker?

With Zehut projected to gain six to seven seats in Israel’s fragmented parliament, the party is well-positioned to decide the country’s next prime minister. While there’s little love lost between Feiglin and Netanyahu, both men share plenty in common, namely a personal, well-documented, commitment to individual liberty and free markets.

For Netanyahu, who is likely to continue as the longest-serving prime minister in the country’s history, a Zehut upset could be a game-changer.

Largely alone with his free-market ideas, Netanyahu cannot rely on Likud to put serious financial reforms on the top of the governing agenda.

Zehut’s rise in the polls is a sign that Israelis are receptive to the libertarian agenda, and for Netanyahu, it could be a sign that he may have a governing partner with which to enact sweeping financial reforms.

Dennis Mitzner is a Tel Aviv-based writer and entrepreneur. Follow him on Twitter at @DennisMitzner or connect with him on Linkedin.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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