NRP, NU mks shake hands.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The merger announced this week between the National Religious Party and the National Union was hardly a surprise. It marks, however, the unfortunate dilution of a unique and proud political institution that combined Zionism and religious moderation. At the moment when a centrist party is potentially poised to sweep into power, the party that had been the most venerable representative of centrism has relinquished its independence.
The NRP has been, throughout most of the history of the state, inherently a centrist alternative between the socialist secularism of our founding fathers and the ambivalence or opposition of other religious parties to the Jewish national project. In some ways, perhaps more than any other party, the NRP has represented the amalgam called "a Jewish state."
So what does it mean that the NRP no longer stands alone? Is the constituency the historic NRP represented no more, or has the NRP abandoned that constituency?
It does happen in politics that parties lose their moorings and pass on into oblivion. At different times in America, either the Democratic or Republican party has strayed too far from the broad center and found itself in the political wilderness. Indeed, the decline of Labor in recent years would seem to represent a prime example of a major party losing touch with the electorate, marginalizing itself and paying for its perceived radicalization at the ballot box.
In the NRP's case, it is indisputable that its shift to the right side of the political spectrum took it into territory where many other parties were competing for votes, thus diminishing its potential vote-winning clout. But there are also indications that the notion of resisting such a shift, though contemplated, was deemed unviable because of a lack of voters for the old-style NRP.
When NRP leader Zevulun Orlev told The Jerusalem Post late last year that he would he would rather close down a settlement than a state religious school, he was criticized within his own party. In the interview, Orlev said that losing settlements was terrible, but that the physical space remained, and thus "I can always have the hope of returning." If a school was lost, by contrast, the students wouldn't return. So "sacrificing a state religious school is worse than sacrificing a settlement."
In the same interview, Orlev explained that he was against an independent Palestinian state. But he also said, "I think that God promised all of Israel to the nation of Israel - I do not want to give up anything ... But it's clear that in a real peace agreement Israel will have to give up something."
For weeks, the NRP avoided the prospect of uniting with the NU, which is regarded as a single-issue party dedicated to defending the settler movement and opposing any further withdrawals and Palestinian statehood. Presumably, during that time, the NRP explored whether there was an electoral constituency for a party that returned to the NRP's historic emphasis on Jewish education rather than the settlement enterprise.
Maybe the NRP did not look seriously enough, but maybe that constituency does not exist in politically significant numbers. Either way, it is a shame that, apparently, the classic national religious point of view is not represented in our electorate, within our political spectrum, or both.
The difficulties arising from the absence of such a point of view are exemplified in the unfinished negotiations over changes in the religious-secular status quo that took place when Shinui and the NRP were both in the governing coalition. Now, it seems, both of these parties will be essentially absent from the next Knesset. Who, then, will be pressing to amend the tattered and anachronistic status quo, and how will the necessary compromises be hammered out?
The NRP, at its best, was a bridge between our religious and secular publics. That bridge is still necessary. The Meimad party, which had none of the NRP's rich independent tradition before it merged into Labor, may provide part of the answer, and also may indicate that NRP took the wrong merger option, and should have become part of the Likud. We hope only that the NRP-NU merger does not spell an end to classic religious Zionism, and to the important role that this movement still has to play in our politics and society.