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Barring any major surprises, the National Religious Party and the National Union will announce Wednesday, or at the latest Thursday, that they will be fielding a joint list in the elections. Months of intermittent negotiations, hostility and recriminations will come to an end just before the final whistle, when all lists have to be handed in to the Central Elections Committee, on Thursday.
The main question has got to be what took them so long? After all, both parties are more or less cut from the same ideological, religious and social cloth. The event that finally sealed the deal was the battle last Wednesday at Amona.
At a time when the more vocal part of the national-religious community is crying foul at the government for the police's violent conduct during destruction of the nine houses at the outpost, the NRP just couldn't continue sitting on the fence. The slump in the polls proved that there was a clear and present danger that by going it alone, the historical party would be wiped out. Party leader Zevulun Orlev had to decide in which direction to jump.
Up until the end of last week, Orlev was still dithering between two possibilities, the alliance with the National Union and a more secret offer that he had received through intermediaries to join the Likud. A deal with Binyamin Netanyahu had two main attractions: It would able NRP to continue playing both sides of the right-wing fence, and it would save Orlev the humiliation of joining up again with his old rivals Effi Eitam and Yitzhak Levy.
But the offer failed to materialize. Netanyahu realized that he had no chance of persuading his own hierarchy to go along with a Likud-NRP alliance and Orlev remained waiting by the telephone. He was left with no choice but to finalize details with the National Union.
One of the major sticking points is the National Union's demand that the NRP's MKs agree not to join any coalition on their own. It has good reason to be worried that the temptation of a cabinet post in an Olmert administration would be too much for Orlev or that the party's new No. 3, Eli Gabbai, might be bought with a committee chairmanship or some other title.
The latest update is that NRP is so eager to be bailed out that it has agreed to a two-year moratorium on joining any government without its new partner.
The fact that a deal was near was evident at the Jerusalem demonstration organized by the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip on Sunday to protest the Amona evacuation. All the NRP candidates turned up; Gabbai even wore a bright orange scarf.
Despite the demonstration being ostensibly non-political, it was the unofficial kickoff of the joint list's election campaign, and the message was clear. On large screens around Zion Square, scenes of horses trampling demonstrators and police batons landing on kippot were shown again and again, and the slogan of the evening was "Olmert is bad for the Jews."
The national-religious community will be portrayed in the campaign as the national underdog, whose democratic rights were disregarded during disengagement from Gush Katif and finally annulled at Amona. Politicians and spokesmen claim this is the way to bring in the votes, but privately admit to fears that many of the less ideological religious voters will be frightened off. Not everyone enjoys being the underdog.
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