National Religious Party leader Zevulun Orlev has not been winning too many popularity contests among his natural allies. His decision to keep his party in the coalition until November 2004 - some five months after the June Cabinet vote to evacuate Gaza - made him a target of the settlers' wrath. So much so that signs attacking both him and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon were posted side-by-side on bus stops along the route from Jerusalem to Gush Katif throughout the year prior to disengagement. This came after he had already angered the haredi parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism in March 2003. That was when the NRP, with his support (though not then under his leadership), joined a coalition with the secular Shinui Party, whose central platform is diametrically opposed to that of the religious parties. Indeed, Orlev only became the head of the NRP when former leader MK Effie Eitam bolted the party to protest what he considered to be a weak anti-disengagement stance. But lack of broad support among right-wing and haredi politicians has not deterred the 60-year-old Orlev from believing that he can turn the NRP's solo agenda into a chorus that would unite 95 percent of the religious-Zionist voters in the next election around a platform based on three priorities - education, Jewish identity and welfare. That his conducting of the orchestra has led to a less-than-harmonious symphony so far is due to the fact that the National Union Party has placed the orange symbol of the failed campaign to save the Gaza settlements from evacuation at the top of its own list of priorities. This difference has been a crucial stumbling-block in the negotiations to run on a joint list in the upcoming Knesset elections. In fact, it has made even the selection of the leader of such a merger difficult. Though Orlev and National Union leader Benny Elon have been accused of failing to come to an agreement because each wants to head the potential joint list, both deny that this is the case. During a recent press conference, Elon responded to questions along these lines by stressing that a choice of leaders in this case is a choice of values. Making the settlement of the land of Israel - certainly prevention of further withdrawals - the highest order of business, he believes, is something on which there can be no compromise. During an interview last week in his Knesset office, Orlev told The Jerusalem Post: "I have no doubt that God promised all the Land of Israel to the People of Israel...[but] as a leader, I have to choose the right way to ensure, rather than endanger, such a future." To this end, he said, his focus is on Jewish social and educational values. A NATIVE of Rehovot and father of four who now lives in Jerusalem with his family, Orlev is a politician to be reckoned with. A graduate of the Hebrew University with a degree in education from the Moreshet Yaakov College, Orlev has served as the director-general of the Education Ministry, as the head of the Knesset Education Committee and as Social Affairs Minister. During the 15th Knesset, his record for passing the highest number of bills won him the best legislator award. He also has a medal of distinguished service for his heroism against the Egyptians during the Yom Kippur War. Though hard pressed to explain why his party received only six mandates in the last election, he sees with great clarity which steps have to be taken - and which avoided - for the NRP to garner more seats in the coming one. The National Union's decision to make the color orange central to its campaign causes Orlev to shake his head. "They are making a mistake," he said, claiming that the "orange issue" does not constitute a common enough bond among all the religious-Zionist voters. "We have told [the National Union] clearly that the religious-Zionist agenda has changed," he emphasized. "That it is now education, Jewish identity and welfare, alongside the national cause. Those who want to fight for Ofra have to fight for Kiryat Shmona; those who fight for Beit El have to fight for Sderot." Banging his hand on his desk, he made a declaration of principles by way of a pun: "We have to put forth kadima the subjects that unite us." The maestro of the NRP continued, "We all have to sing the same song: sacrificing of a state-religious school is worse than sacrificing a settlement. Sacrificing a settlement is terrible, but the place [physical area] isn't lost. There is always the hope of returning. But when a school is sacrificed, the students won't return. They're lost." This statement, when published last week in a the Post news story, caused some members of the National Union to speak out publicly against Orlev. Interestingly enough, Elon was not one of them, but he did fault Orlev for not having chosen his words carefully enough. For his part, Orlev did not retract the controversial statement, but rather clarified it by assuring that he had not meant to imply he supported evacuation of settlements. During the interview, Orlev was candid about wanting to bridge the gap with Elon in order to pull the religious-Zionist movement more to the center. And, when asked about other potential political partners, Orlev did not completely rule out the Likud. Voting patterns, he said, bear out his strategy. In the last elections, the Likud garnered more settler votes than either the NRP or the National Union. Furthermore, he added, only a small number of the total NRP votes came from the settlements, suggesting that concerns other than Judea and Samaria were and are at the fore. ORLEV CLAIMED that it would have been easier to give in to temptation and accept the National Union's demands, among them for Elon to head the list - just as it would have been simpler, he said, to have left the government the minute it passed the disengagement plan, or to have refused to sit in a coalition with Shinui. "We could have said, 'We will save our souls and sit nicely in the opposition and make all the nice speeches and vote the way we want to.' But I didn't want to sacrifice Israel by leaving a destructive coalition of Shinui, Labor and Likud there without us," he said, claiming it was the NPR's presence in the government, among other things, that thwarted Shinui from passing a civil marriage bill. By not leaving the government after the passage of the disengagement plan, he said, the NRP was able to advocate for the setters and continue to preserve the nation's Jewish values. He also dismissed charges that by sitting in a coalition with Shinui, the NRP allowed the government to eliminate the Religious Affairs Ministry. The basis on which to disband the Religious Affairs Ministry, he explained, was set during Sharon's first term, when Shas was in the coalition. Though the NRP was not able to put a stop to the move during Sharon's second term, he said, it was able to guarantee that services be distributed among other ministries, rather than being cancelled altogether. Having such services handled by regular ministries, he explained, allows for equity. Someone who studies Talmud in a hesder yeshiva should get the same educational grants as someone who studies at a university. By the same token, he added, religious courts should be treated like state courts, and religious tourist sites should be given the same resources as secular ones. One can move forward with one's agenda, he insisted, even where there is discord. "I could be the education minister, even though I know people are playing sports on Shabbat. I can be the transportation minister even though I know people are working in the ports on Shabbat. It doesn't mean that I agree. The NRP's outlook is not that a plane shouldn't take off on Shabbat, but that the pilot should know that it is Shabbat. This could be our contribution." It is this attitude that has allowed him to conclude, too, that he would remain in any future coalition, as long as it accepted the holding of a national referendum prior to any territorial concessions. AS THE son of Polish immigrants most of whose family perished in the Holocaust, Orlev said he sees a victory in the four generations of family members who sit around his Shabbat table. As a politician, he said, he has elevated his family's personal mission into a national one. "The NRP is the only party that can build the Jewish identity of the nation. It has a Zionist responsibility to take into account the need to build all aspects of the nation - economic, security, welfare, Torah, Jewish law and Jewish thought," he said. "It's a party that sees Israel not only in terms of defense, but as the fulfillment of the divine promise and historical right." "Why do Jews come to Israel?" he asked, leaning back in his chair. "Is it because security is better?" Not on your life, he answered his own question, then pointed to the fact that more than 1,000 Jews have been killed in Israel since violence broke out in September 2000 and thousands more injured. "You tell a Jew to come and live here because of the significance of living as a Jew in a Jewish land. It is the essence of this significance that is our essential mission," he said. Asked whether this means he is less interested in the country's security needs, he said: "I will not fold the national flag. It's just that if I had NIS 100 million, I would invest it in the spiritual infrastructure of Israel. The central question facing Israel today is, 'What kind of a nation do we want to be?'"