Potent bid to thwart Gaza pullout

A rising political figure, Moshe Feiglin is pushing a Bible-influenced vision for Israel's future, setting up a battle over concessions on territory.

While his plan for withdrawal from the Gaza Strip is gaining momentum abroad, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is being dogged at home by an energetic young fundamentalist inside the ruling Likud party.

He is Moshe Feiglin, and he is determined to become prime minister. As head of the Likud's "Jewish Leadership" group, Mr. Feiglin has become an increasingly potent political force who, even his detractors concede, can no longer be ignored.

Feiglin's aspiration is no secret: He wants to reshape Israel according to his own ultranationalist definition of Judaism.

Even as Egypt's intelligence chief Omar Suleiman met Israeli and Palestinian leaders this week about the proposed withdrawal, and France's Foreign Minister Michel Barnier offered a qualified endorsement of withdrawal plans during a Middle East tour, the soft- spoken Mr. Feiglin outlined an alternative, biblically influenced vision of future developments in the region.

It is one in which he and likeminded activists thwart the Gaza withdrawal and thereby, in their view, take a step toward making Israel more Jewish.

"The disengagement has no logic, either military, demographically, or otherwise," Feiglin says, before heading to a lobbying session at the Knesset. "It is simply a desire to disengage from Israel's Jewish identity."

Cues from Genesis

Put simply, Sharon and Feiglin are now on a collision course over territory.

While Sharon's ability to carry out the Gaza withdrawal - including 21 settlements built in contravention of the Geneva Convention - is now the key to his credibility at home and abroad, retaining Gaza for Israel, in the view of Feiglin, is an integral part of honoring a divine promise to the Jewish people.

"Jewish Leadership" writings stress Genesis 35:12, in which God promises the patriarch Jacob, just renamed Israel, that "the land which I gave to Abraham and Isaac, to thee I will give it, and to thy seed after thee will I give the land."

Previously, Israeli extremist politicians, such as the anti-Arab Meir Kahane, led smaller ultranationalist or religious parties. But Feiglin, some of whose ideas are strikingly similar to Kahane's, stands out because he is influencing Israel's dominant party from inside.

He estimates that since 1999, he has enrolled more than 10,000 new Likud members, among a total current membership of about 200,000. It was in 1999, says Feiglin, who previously voted for other parties, that he first realized Likud's potential to bring "Jewish Leadership" to power.

He and other "faithful Jewish leaders," as opposed to Sharon, base their views on "belief in God and Jewish principles." Feiglin says.

This he interprets as meaning that only Jews can be citizens of Israel.

Under "Jewish Leadership," many of the more than 1 million Arab citizens would lose their right to live in the country because "their representatives show complete disloyalty to Jewish sovereignty."

For Feiglin, keeping all the land of Israel - which he defines as reaching at least from Egypt's Sinai to the Euphrates River in Iraq - is the embodiment of God's will.

"The miraculous return of the Jewish people to its land after 2,000 years proves that this people has a father in heaven," says the former army officer who specialized in defusing mines, and was later the owner of a computer company. "When we ourselves deny this, it results in catastrophe not only for the Jews in the land of Israel but for the entire world."

Interpreting 9/11

Feiglin offers his own interpretation of what caused 9/11. "Without Rabin's handshake with Arafat, the twin towers would still be standing," he says. "It was the flight from our Jewish identity that led to the Oslo process [with the Palestinians], which is what produced the Islamic suicide bombers."

Feiglin's reading of history was not taken very seriously by those in power until April, when Likud members held a referendum on the Gaza withdrawal.

Vice-Premier Ehud Olmert stressed the demographic argument that about 7,500 settlers have no future among 1.2 million Palestinians.

But it was activists from the settlements council, working from outside Likud, joining Feiglin, working from inside Likud, who held the day. They garnered a 59.5 percent "no" vote, forcing Sharon to circumvent the veto by reaching a compromise in the cabinet.

Two weeks ago, ministers approved the idea of disengagement. But, significantly, they postponed a vote on withdrawing settlements until next March. That sets the stage for a protracted battle in which analysts believe Feiglin will figure prominently. If Sharon opts for a national-unity coalition with the opposition Labor Party to push through the withdrawal, Feiglin is expected to become a key ally of current Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in thwarting territorial concessions from within Likud.

With 130 highly disciplined members of Likud's 3,000-strong central committee, "Feiglin has a considerable weight that can swing votes," says Leslie Susser, political correspondent of the Jerusalem Report magazine.

Feiglin is also expected to be a key organizer of demonstrations against the withdrawal. "If the decision is to evacuate certain settlements and Netanyahu sides in favor of such an evacuation, Feiglin's option is to incite violence against soldiers. Things could get very ugly," says Mr. Susser.

Urging disobedience

Feiglin, who got his start in politics by organizing protests against the Oslo Agreement, says he will stress "nonviolent civil rebellion" in Israel, such as blocking highways. Using force against soldiers carrying out the withdrawal is "moral" in Feiglin's view, but he adds that it is politically unwise.

He is urging soldiers to disobey any orders to evict settlers.

Feiglin's growing clout is creating a backlash in Likud. "The Likud as a movement always bridged gaps between religious and secular, and between right and left," says Knesset member Ruhama Avraham. "What is happening now with Feiglin, and all the noise he makes, is extremely damaging to the party. I hope he will find a way to leave Likud of his own volition."

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