Benny Elon 248.88.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
National Union-National Religious Party leader Benny Elon had tried unsuccessfully for years to unite the Right.
He attempted to draft enough support on the Right to topple Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and prevent disengagement. He tried to delay the election by drafting the 61 MKs needed for Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu to form a temporary government. And he sought to bring a cluster of right-wing parties - or at least all the religious-Zionist parties - into one bloc that would run together in the March 28 election.
Elon succeeded in his last goal after weeks of bitter negotiations between the National Union and the NRP - and, it emerged, after discovering that a tumor in his throat was malignant. Some people in both parties consider the partnership temporary, though, according both to Elon and to NRP head Zevulun Orlev, the cancer will impede neither the alliance nor Elon's ability to remain at its helm.
In fact, Elon sees the merger as just the first step toward building a solid right-wing bloc that could prevent Kadima from forming a coalition, and then, as the basis for a ruling party.
Even before the nascent political bond has been tested, its potential success has already been questioned by pollsters who have predicted that it will not add a single mandate and by naysayers to the right and left of the party on the political spectrum.
(An editorial in The Jerusalem Post said that the merger "marks...the unfortunate dilution of a unique and proud political institution that combined Zionism and religious moderation.")
Elon answers his critics by saying that religious Zionism can still maintain its role as a bridge between the world of Torah and the world of academia, and that the NU-NRP alliance will lead not to the death of religious-Zionism but to its renaissance.
You succeeded in uniting the National Union and the NRP. What's your next step?
Short-term, we want the public to see that together with the religious parties, Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu, it is possible to build a bloc of 61 MKs that could prevent Kadima from forming a coalition. Long-term, we want to present an alternative ruling party built by a different community, a community of believers.
The political "big bang" that Sharon used to explode the Likud necessitates doing something different. It would be easier, more practical and more right to build a new framework - a new house - than to remodel the old Likud house that has been destroyed.
The crisis in the country is a spiritual crisis. A Right that rests only on hawkishness and security without relying on heritage, Bible and Torah will not last. The young religious people in the army and all facets of society are building a new right wing that is more spiritual. This new Right is more right. It's not just a matter of wearing a kippa. It's a deeper matter of faith.
But without Sharon, why can't the Likud start over?
Sharon was a Right of lies and we can't let that happen again. I want a Right that believes in security but also says this land is ours according to the Bible. We won't defeat the Arabs if we forget that justice is on our side. Justice says this isn't occupied - it's mine. The Likud gave us a supermarket with no ethics. Much of the Likud can integrate itself into our new framework.
The Likud talked about Judaism but it was mostly a ploy to bring in votes from traditional Sephardim. The Likud has finished its historic role and become a trap with no hope. The Likud won 40 seats against [Labor candidate Amram] Mitzna and look where they brought us. They didn't bring us closer to security or peace. They did bring us a Hamas state. We can say "I told you so" about Oslo and disengagement, but it won't help unless we provide an alternative.
Without a partner, what can Israel do?
Israel should adopt the idea that Sharon once talked about and I support, which calls for Jordan becoming a Palestinian state, Israel exercising sovereignty over all of Judea and Samaria, and the Arabs living there becoming full citizens of Jordan.
The Palestinian problem can be solved using an existing country that we have relations with, instead of creating a third country run by a bunch of gangsters. We should have tried to reach a regional solution with our neighbors. Instead we tried to create something new, ex nihilo, and now it should be clear that it failed. We should say we won't create a new Palestinian state.
We will sit with Egypt and Jordan and talk about how to redefine the situation. If we have to share some land with them, we will. If we only have to divide responsibilities, it would be even better. We cannot create a fundamentalist state that would become a monster. Another state would topple us. Jordan was the only possible partner. Without them, we would be left with no option.
How would you solve the demographic problem?
It's clear that a fence is not enough if we control both sides of it. The way to fix the demographic problem is aliya or deciding that Palestinians don't vote for the Knesset because their capital is in Amman. It's better than giving the other side of the fence to the chaos of Hamas. Kadima doesn't have anything to say about that. If they withdraw unilaterally, they have to realize to whom they are giving it.
How do you respond to those who wrote recently that religious Zionism moved to the fringe when the NRP merged with the National Union under your leadership?
It's true that I haven't been part of the political mainstream, but religious Zionism isn't just politics. The religious-Zionist renaissance is learning Torah while being part of academia, the army and settling all of the land. In this, I am mainstream. I don't believe in the secular Right anymore. I don't believe in hawkishness that's not based on anything. I believe in the classic religious Zionism of Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook - of Torah and being part of the world. That makes me mainstream.
Religious Zionism is the alternative, not just in politics but in education and society. It's important for a secular kid to know how to open a siddur. Our agenda won't be just about the Land of Israel. We need all the kids of Israel to be connected to tradition. It's hard to live in this country with reserve duty and taxes. People need motivation to live here. We need a foreign minister who travels the world with the Bible and makes a coalition of all the believers who know that God wants a strong Israel.
Aren't you worried about moderate people who might be frightened off?
There is a natural tendency of some Rightists not to vote for us because the NRP is not right-wing enough and some because the National Union is too hawkish. We will make every effort to reach these people and convince them that what we have in common is much more than what divides us, and I believe we will succeed. These people are smaller in number than the majority that was enthusiastically in favor.
How can you talk about building a ruling party when religious Zionists are a small minority?
First of all, in the polls, the Likud has fallen to 13-15 mandates and our numbers say we have 14, so it's not that unrealistic. The numbers are that 24 percent of Israelis send their children to religious-Zionist schools and some 50% of people at different religious levels consider themselves traditional.
I think socially and educationally we are already the alternative and we will become so politically, too. After this election, it will become a lot clearer, and after the next election, it will be clear to everyone. It's a historic process. I am not saying they are wrong and we are right; I think it's a relay race and our time has come to take the baton.
How do you explain polls published in The Jerusalem Post that have found that the merger didn't bring the Right more mandates, and the National Union and NRP will combine for only eight or nine seats whether or not they are united?
I don't think the poll is reliable. All our polls say we have at least 12 seats before we start working, and I believe it will be much higher, because we will go from house to house as we did with the Likud referendum, bypassing the press and getting to people personally. I always believed in direct marketing.
What are the chances the NU-NRP will be in the government?
I still think there is a chance for Bibi to become prime minister if the Likud runs better. If the Right succeeds in winning the 61 MKs needed to block Kadima and the Left from forming a coalition, Kadima will split and then the Right could have 80 seats in the next Knesset.
And if Olmert wins the election?
We don't boycott people. We could join the coalition if Olmert decides that because there is no partner on the Palestinian side, the government's efforts need to be focused on socioeconomic issues and education. Allowing diplomatic issues to set the agenda at a time when there is no partner would be a waste of time.
We will not sit in a government that will uproot even one Jewish settlement, no matter who is prime minister. But with no partner, even Labor cannot uproot settlements. Therefore, even if Amir Peretz wins the election, and he asks us to join a government with a socioeconomic and educational agenda, I say why not? If you ask me, this is the most urgent thing that needs to be done now, and this can unify the country. I have no problem sitting in a coalition on socioeconomic issues, even with Meretz.
My problem with Meretz was the pleasure that they took in seeing Jews uprooted from the Gaza Strip. They were willing to vote for the budget and they gave up their socioeconomic agenda to allow disengagement to happen. All the social justice they talk about took a back seat. What keeps them together is just their hatred of the settlers. I would sit with them if they can get over their irrational hatred.
Why is your only secular candidate, MK Aryeh Eldad, only eighth on the list?
With all the political limitations, it was the best we could do. Places on lists don't matter. The proof of that is that Ehud Olmert was 33rd on the Likud list. Eldad was the last candidate in the National Union to make it into the Knesset in the last election and he proved that he could be successful. We also tried to raise our Anglo candidate, Uri Bank, beyond the 16th slot that he is in, but I have no doubt that he will join the Knesset, too. If we are in the coalition, we can adopt the Norwegian Law and have all our ministers quit to make room for more MKs.
Why don't you quit the Knesset now, so Uri Bank, who is next on the list, will get in?
I am considering it, but I am afraid of the public reaction. The MKs who joined the Knesset temporarily were accused of stealing government benefits. But if the public would accept it, and it helps Uri win more votes from the Anglos, I would be fine with it.
Why did it take so long for the deal with the NRP to be finalized?
It took a long time to find the wording to ensure that it wouldn't be a fictitious marriage. For instance, we needed to find a way to prevent the NRP from joining the coalition without us, while still allowing the parties to remain independent. We want the deal to last a lot longer than just the few weeks until the March 28 election. For gentiles, weddings can be just cocktails and happiness. In Jewish weddings, we read the ketuba with all of its unromantic details about divorce. Then, we say "mazal tov" and move on.