Analysis: How cannabis legalization became 'high priority' in Israel's 2019 vote

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With Feiglin blazing trail for legalization, his other more radical policies obscured by cloud of smoke.

If the proverbial alien lands from outer space, it will certainly be impressed by the nature of a country deciding its election on the legalization of cannabis. But that is exactly what is happening now in Israel's 2019 election campaigns.

An observer may – wrongfully – infer that Iran has abandoned its nuclear ambitions to dedicate time to Persian art instead, while Hamas, so it might seem, has disarmed its military branch to focus on welfare. It might appear as though Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has turned his bunker in Lebanon into a fancy Escape Room where former terrorists now spend their leisure time. In such a pastoral climate, there is nothing else to debate other than legalization of marijuana.

As Israel's April 9 vote approaches, the heads of parties and politicians are being summoned to TV and radio stations to define their opinions on the legalization and decriminalization of cannabis. Surprisingly, most suddenly have an opinion on an issue they've never commented on before. Most of the parties, other than Arab and ultra-Orthodox parties, are in favor. After all, Israeli politicians have to at least project an air of openness on the issue to please the one-third of 18-40 year-old voters who are about to decide the elections.

The man blazing this new trail in Israeli political campaigning is Moshe Feiglin, head of Zehut ("Identity") party -- once a political pariah perceived as weird, once an outsider who was rejected by his former Likud party as "too radical". Feiglin's agenda was either overlooked or considered a utopic (or dystopic) fragment of imagination.

Ahmad Gharabli (AFP)
Far-right member of the Israeli parliament, Moshe Feiglin (centre), speaks on the phone in the old city of Jerusalem after visiting al-Aqsa mosque compound on November 2, 2014
Ahmad Gharabli (AFP)

But 2019 is the second coming of Feiglin, this time crossing the electoral threshold with Zehut and therefore becoming a much-coveted partner for future coalitions, whether led by the center-left or right.

Feiglin arrived in this position by turning his longstanding support for cannabis legalization into the focal point of his campaign and symbol of basic human rights and freedom of choice.

In the process, his other ideas – like his messianic vision of building the third Temple in Jerusalem, requiring loyalty tests for Arab-Israelis who wish to become citizens, and declaring the Palestinian Authority government a terrorist organization – remain obscured by a heavy smoke.

Libertarian for some, ultra-nationalist for others, Feiglin draws crowds and voters from both right and left enthusiastic about the only policy of his known to them – marijuana.

In an election campaign lacking agenda and a real theme, Feiglin offers some novelty. How many times can Israelis hear "it’s either Bibi or Tibi", a catchy phrase recited by Likud members for around a decade now warning voters of a choice between their leader Benjamin Netanyahu or the Arab party leader. How many times can the reticence the centrist Blue & White party leaders be criticized or ridiculed? How long can the agendas of so many parties be a guesswork for Israelis going to the polls in less than a month?

And here comes Feiglin and company forcing them to form an opinion on something.

Lars Hagberg (AFP)
Cannabis plants being clipped
Lars Hagberg (AFP)

Even Netanyahu was quick to announce that he will seriously consider legalization after the elections. At this point, Israelis know more about what their politicians think about marijuana than they know about their standing on the two-state solution.

But in all honesty, it seems that Israeli voters do not really care.

Experience has proven that there is little correlation between politicians' pre-elections declarations and post-elections performance. On the other hand, analysts have real trouble finding major differences between parties on major issues like Jerusalem (united forever), the Golan Heights (stay there forever), and the establishment of a Palestinian state.

These days, marijuana is a safe bet.

Lily Galili is a feature writer, analyst of Israeli society and expert on immigration from the former Soviet Union. She is the co-author of "The Million that Changed the Middle East."

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