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Israel's political establishment embraces cannabis —even amid lurch to hard right

Two Israeli ex-prime ministers are now involved in the cannabis industry, and legalization became a key issue in this month's elections. But in a case of strange bedfellows, legalization was aggressively taken up as a campaign plank by the far right.

Cannabis appears to have gone thoroughly mainstream in Israel this year. The country has yet to actually legalize, but a decrim measure passed last year and an expansion of the medical marijuana program have opened space for a fast-growing industry. Acceptance of cannabis across the political spectrum is increasingly evident.

Two ex-prime ministers enter cannabis industry
As of this month, there are now two former Israeli prime ministers who are involved in the cannabis industry. First, Ehud Barak of the Labor Party, who ruled the country from 1999 to 2001, was appointed last September as chairman of InterCure, holding company for cannabis cultivator and product developer Canndoc Pharma.  

Now Barak has been joined in the industry by Ehud Olmert of the ruling right-wing Likud party, who served as prime minister from 2006 to 2009. Univo Pharmaceuticals announced in early April it had named Olmert as a consultant. Univo has big plans for industrial-scale cannabis cultivation at its facilities in the southern coastal city of Ashkelon. Although it is still awaiting a license from the Health Ministry to begin operations, its website boasts of providing "Cannabis from seed to market."

Olmert was convicted and served prison time after he stepped down as prime minister, which means that under law he cannot be a major shareholder or serve on the board of directors of a publicly traded company. (The charge concerned bribery when he was mayor of Jerusalem.) But as a consultant for Univo, he will pull a monthly salary of $10,000 for about 40 hours of work. Univo’s shares jumped more than 37% on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange in response to the news. 

In reporting Olmert's joining Univo, Israeli daily Ha'aretz noted that this is part of a greater trend of powerful figures moving from officialdom to the cannabis biz. InterCure has also named Nitzan Alon, a retired major general in the Israeli Defense Forces, as CEO of Canndoc. 

And Together Pharma has appointed former Israeli national police commissioner Yohanan Danino as chairman. Together Pharma made headlines last year when it became the first Israeli cannabis producer to announce plans to establish grow operations in a foreign country, although it failed to name the country.

Key election issue —for the far right
Cannabis also emerged as a key issue in the Israeli elections that were just held this month. But there were some proverbial strange bedfellows for the herb once associated with the peace-and-love ethic of the hippie culture. Bloomberg ran the counterintuitive headline "Cannabis Has Young Voters High on This Israeli Right-Winger." The man in question was Moshe Feiglin, a West Bank settler who broke from Likud to form the new Zehut(Identity) party—which played to the youth vote with a cannabis legalization plank, while taking an even harder line than Likud on the Palestinian question (which is saying quite a lot).  

"It's legitimate that people from different reasons will support us, but we don't hide anything," Feiglin told Bloomberg, admitting that legalization plank was intended to appeal "to the young generation of Israelis."

But his other planks called for cancellation of the Oslo Accords (the 1993 peace deal with the Palestinians, calling for an eventual two-state solution), Israeli annexation of the occupied West Bank, and "transfer" (that is, forced removal) of the Palestinians living there.  Ha'aretz called him the "Pro-pot Jewish Evangelist Who Wants a Holy War."

Feiglin's run for the Knesset, Israel's parliament, clearly put the country's traditional cannabis activist community in a bit of a pickle. Israel's most prominent legalization advocate has until now been Boaz Wachtel, who founded the single-issue Ale Yarok (Green Leaf) party in 1999. "I have mixed feelings," Wachtel told Bloomberg. "I'm sad that such an extremist—and I don't want to use too many harsh words—such as Feiglin has gotten on the legalization wagon and he's making an issue for himself riding our work."

Media coverage both within Israel and internationally named Feiglin as a likely "kingmaker," who would be instrumental in forming the next Israeli government after the elections. When the results came in on April 10, however, it was clear that he had been defeated. Nonetheless, his bid broke new ground in mainstreaming once-radical ideas in Israeli politics—one good idea (legalization), and several very bad ones.

The incumbent and scandal-tainted Likud prime minister, Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu, prevailed over his challenger Benny Gantz, who lead the somewhat more moderate Blue and White coalition. When the results were announced, Netanyahu's followers broke out into disconcerting chants of  "Bibi, king of Israel." He is now poised to overtake Israel's founder David Ben-Gurion as the country's longest serving prime minister.

Will bud feel the boycott?
The prospects for peace are not good, alas. Palestinian leader Mustafa Barghouti told the BBC World Service that the elections indicated "the death of the peace camp" in Israeli politics. "If you count the number of people that were elected that would support a two-state solution, the number would not exceed 18, and most of them are Palestinian Arabs who are Israeli citizens." There are 120 seats in Knesset. Barghouti said the election marked "a very serious shift, not only to the right, but actually to racism, a system of apartheid. All these parties want to keep the occupation, none of them is ready to accept a two-state solution."  

The prospects for cannabis are better. The across-the-board legalization championed by Feiglin may not be imminent, but the direction is clearly toward greater liberalization. In February, cannabis exports were approved by the cabinet, sending the share prices of Israeli cannabis companies soaring on the Tel Aviv exchange.

And last year the Knesset overwhelmingly passed a cannabis decriminalization measure—which was actually sponsored by Netanyahu's conservative Likud government.

But the strange juxtaposition of liberalizing cannabis policy and a hardening stance on the Palestinian question may eventually raise the prospect of marijuana being targeted by the international movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions, or BDS, against Israel.

Cross-post to Cannabis Now