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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Compared to the uncertainty created by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's stroke, the following bit of political news may seem trivial: The National Religious Party has decided to run separately from the National Union. Nevertheless, this decision is noteworthy, because it greatly increases the likelihood of one or both parties being wiped off the map in the coming election. And that would be one of the best things that could happen to the religious Zionist public.
Since both parties claim to embody religious Zionism's most cherished aspirations (the National Union, having been abandoned by Avigdor Lieberman's faction, now consists mainly of MKs who broke away from the NRP over the last decade), that might seem counterintuitive. Yet not only have both failed dismally to live up to this claim, but their continued existence has prevented religious Zionists from considering better ways to achieve their political goals.
One ordinary citizen succinctly described both parties' biggest problem in an interview with Haaretz last month: "The house is on fire â€¦ and you guys are fighting over seats!" In fact, the NRP in particular has for years done nothing but fight over jobs - while neglecting virtually every issue that it was ostensibly elected to promote.
Nothing better illustrates this than the party's recent negotiations with the National Union. The latter accepted the NRP's two "ideological" demands: that the campaign focus on education, welfare and Jewish identity as well as settlements, and that the joint list not rule out joining any coalition in advance. That achieved, a party that cared about its stated goals should have been satisfied. Instead, NRP Chairman Zevulun Orlev abandoned the talks for the pettiest possible reason: the National Union's unwillingness to name him campaign chairman.
But while such pettiness may be merely laughable in minor issues, it is devastating at the national level - as became evident after the May 1996 elections, when Israel faced several urgent tasks. These included coping with a deadly suicide bombing campaign by Hamas; reevaluating the Oslo process in light of the Palestinian Authority's manifest failure to fight terror; and dealing with the financial crisis caused by the previous Labor government's borrow-and-spend policies (the balance-of-payments deficit had become so staggering that even Labor MKs admitted retrenchment was necessary).
WITH ALL that on the government's plate, one would have expected coalition members to buckle down and get to work. Instead, the NRP (the National Union did not yet exist) completely paralyzed the government for over two months while it fought with Shas for control of the Religious Affairs Ministry. Compared to the all-important issue of securing the ministry's patronage jobs for its hacks, nothing else mattered a whit.
But perhaps nothing better illustrates the hypocrisy of both parties' claim to care about national issues then their behavior in positions of power at the Education Ministry: For years, they shortchanged funding for Jewish education in secular schools in order to funnel more money to Orthodox schools. A party that truly cared about the state's Jewish identity would have done exactly the opposite, since for secular children, school may well provide their only exposure to Judaism. That is presumably not the case for religious children.
Yet even if the NRP (or the National Union) should miraculously reform, their demise would still be beneficial - because small splinter parties have long since ceased to be the best way for religious Zionists to influence the national agenda. They would be far more effective acting within a major party.
THAT RELATIVELY small groups can have a major impact on large parties is obvious to anyone who follows American politics: Evangelical Christians, though a small minority of Republican voters, have had a major influence on that party, while liberal American Jews, an even smaller minority of Democratic voters, have attained significant influence within that party.
But in Israel's parliamentary system, this influence would be greatly magnified, because the largest party is usually given first stab at forming a government. Thus by throwing their votes to, say, Likud, religious Zionist rightists - who, between the NRP and the National Union, account for an estimated seven or eight seats - would substantially increase the chances that it, rather than Kadima or Labor, would form the next government. And should Likud win, it would have to take the views of those who handed it the victory into account; to do otherwise would be suicidal.
Virtually alone among religious Zionists, two people understood this long ago: Meimad's Rabbi Michael Melchior, who led religious doves into an alliance with Labor, and Moshe Feiglin, who formed a religious faction within Likud. But while Melchior has scored some modest successes in Labor despite his small voter base, Feiglin's influence in Likud has thus far been negligible. That is partly because he is far to the right not only of most Likud voters, but even of most NRP and National Union voters. But it is mainly because he in practice has few votes to offer the party: Even his small group of followers, though they vote religiously in internal party elections, are widely suspected within Likud of supporting other parties in general elections.
If, in contrast, religious Zionist hawks decamped en masse to the Likud, their influence would be substantial. The ideal moment for such a move would be now: Not only has the Likud shrunk due to desertions to Kadima, thereby increasing the relative weight that a strong religious Zionist contingent would have, but Kadima has drawn off precisely those former Likudniks most hostile to this camp's stated positions.
Unfortunately, the politics of identity make such a development unlikely as long as the NRP and the National Union exist: To many religious Zionists, these parties' kippa-wearing MKs simply look more "like us" than do Likud MKs - who, unsurprisingly in the absence of a strong religious Zionist wing, are almost uniformly secular.
But should either party fail to enter the Knesset this time around, religious Zionists would be forced to rethink their ideas on how to achieve their political ends. And since both parties have proven themselves inadequate to this task, that could only be beneficial.