Benny Elon 248.88.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
On Tuesday, the Knesset held a special session commemorating five years since the assassination of tourism minister Rehavam Ze'evi.
According to protocol, the leader of the party he founded made a speech. But the successor to that icon of the secular right-wing is Rabbi Benny Elon and Ze'evi's party, Moledet, has been subsumed into the polygenic National Union-National Religious Party - for all practical purposes, a religious party with one token secular MK, Arye Eldad.
Now that Avigdor Lieberman has taken Israel Beiteinu into Olmert's government, which at least officially is still based on coalition guidelines that include a commitment to territorial compromise, the right-wing suddenly looks extremely small, almost insignificant. A weakened Likud, with the smallest number of MKs in its history, and the fractious NU-NRP, and that's it.
Even within this small camp totaling 21 MKs, there are few stalwarts. The Likud, which still styles itself as a center-right party, doesn't rule out a future withdrawal from parts of the West Bank, and still contains more than a few members who supported Ariel Sharon's disengagement.
Nor is the NRP component of the NU-NRP instinctively anti-Olmert. MK Zvulun Orlev doesn't rule out joining the coalition. The staunch whole-of-Eretz-Yisrael position is now represented in the Knesset by a mere handful of legislators and Lieberman's move has marginalized them even further.
Two months ago, immediately after the second Lebanon War, the right wing was convinced that new elections were just around the corner and saw a major shift toward them in the opinion polls. Now Lieberman has given Olmert and Kadima a new lease on power. The latest polls show that the public is mainly muddled but hasn't yet decided on a new direction.
Over the last year, right-wing strategists pinned their hopes on immigrants from the former Soviet Union. These voters are in favor of acting tough toward Israeli Arabs and Palestinians, against relinquishing territory, and have little patience with namby-pamby talk of liberalism and human rights. The nine or 10 Knesset seats that Lieberman received from this constituency seemed proof of their inherent Rightness. But Lieberman seems confident that joining the coalition won't chase his voters away, and the leaders of the old Right have to admit that he knows them a lot better than they do. The Russians might be ultranationalists but that doesn't automatically put them in the same boat as the the settlers.
Also, the two remaining opposition parties to the right of the coalition have very little common ground on which to base cooperation. The National Union quite rightly blames the Likud for most of Israel's territorial withdrawals and are suspicious of any plans Binyamin Netanyahu might have. Netanyahu and the Likud are desperate to find their way back into the mainstream. The last thing they're interested in is being identified with "extremists."
There are no easy choices for either party. The NU-NRP lawmakers realize that they have failed to achieve their long-cherished ideal, "to settle in the hearts" of the people, and they are deeply concerned about their isolation as a religious minority, estranged from the rest of Israeli society.
Netanyahu's dilemma is even more difficult. If the Likud doesn't want to be seen as extremist naysayers, it will have to come up with some pragmatic initiatives, including the possibility of further withdrawals. But then how will Netanyahu be able to convince the public that he is less an opportunist than Lieberman or Olmert?