Inside NRP, rival camps battle

Success of Orlev's pragmatic approach - the product of a lack of competition.

shalom jarbi 298 (photo credit: Matthew Wagner)
shalom jarbi 298
(photo credit: Matthew Wagner)
It is not just his strong jawline and intense brown eyes that make Sar-Shalom Jarbi, newly elected secretary-general of the National Religious Party, a popular choice in NRP circles to run for the Knesset. Jarbi's Sephardi roots are sorely needed by the conspicuously Ashkenazi party. His tough childhood in the development town of Karmiel would cultivate the NRP's social-activist image. Jarbi, 36, is also a hard-core settler. He lives in Mitzpe Yeriho, a small settlement east of Ma'aleh Adumim that will be left outside the planned security fence. No less importantly, Jarbi identifies with the more pragmatic camp within the NRP led by party chairman Zevulun Orlev, which sees territorial compromise as highly undesirable but not taboo. "The NRP would remain in a coalition that evacuates additional settlements in Judea and Samaria on the condition that a referendum supports the move," says Jarbi, echoing Orlev's position. Just two months ago, Jarbi beat out incumbent Shmaryahu Ben-Tzur, an NRP old-timer, in the race for the position of secretary-general, receiving 74.5 percent of the vote from the NRP's central committee. The NRP elects its 1,000 central committee members proportional to the number of people in each locality who voted for them in the last two elections and how many participated in a membership drive four months ago that mustered 70,000. Although Jarbi seems to represent the NRP's majority opinion, there is a strong minority of people like Haim Falk, a resident of Ofra, who oppose him. Falk believes the NRP's main goals are not just education, Jewish identity and socioeconomic equality, but also doing everything possible to prevent the next disengagement. "I could never sit in a government that made territorial compromises," Falk said. "Even if a referendum supported it." Falk, who was defeated by Eli Gabbai in the race for the position of NRP bureau chief, received 20% of the central committee vote. He was ranked No. 10 on the NRP list in the last elections. Asher Abargel, head of the Shafir Regional Council and a prot g of former NRP MK Yitzhak Levy, also opposes Orlev. Abargel sees himself and Falk as belonging to a more ideological, Torah-oriented camp within the NRP that was founded by former NRP MKs Hanan Porat and Rabbi Haim Druckman. This camp was weakened by the split from the NRP of Levy and MK Effi Eitam. Abargel admits that it represents no more than 40% of the central committee. "There are two basic camps in the NRP," said Immanuel Shiloh, editor-in-chief of Besheva, a religious Zionist weekly distributed free to 150,000 religious households throughout the country. "One camp, led by Orlev, is very pragmatic. Its primary objective is to enter the coalition and obtain budgets and resources for religious Zionist institutions. That's why on the eve of disengagement Orlev stayed in the government for as long as possible. "The other camp is more ideological," Shiloh continued. "It is interested in offering an alternative religious Zionist leadership, in making an impact, in changing the face of Israel. This camp cannot accept territorial compromise. Even if there were a referendum that supported the uprooting of settlements, this camp could not remain in a coalition that perpetrated such a crime." Shiloh, whose paper identifies with the ideological camp, says the dissent in the NRP is deeply rooted in theology. The ideologues follow the teachings of Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook and his son, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook. The two preached a message of redemption though the building of the state. They were basically optimists who believed the religious Zionist minority could influence the secular majority and transform the state into a holy place governed by the Torah. Others who were influenced by Kook's philosophy include the Likud's Manhigut Yehudit (Jewish Leadership), headed by Moshe Feiglin, and National Union MKs Uri Ariel and Benny Elon. In contrast, Orlev's approach mirrors the historic Hapoel Hamizrahi party, which had no aspirations to transform the State of Israel. Instead, the primary goal was to look out for religious Zionism's interests. Orlev and the people he represents accept their minority status but want to make sure the secular majority does not discriminate against them. These two opposing approaches are one of the obstacles preventing the unification of the NRP with the National Union, although sources close to negotiations say these ideological differences could easily be overcome if the power struggle over leadership and Knesset representation were settled. Orlev's pragmatic approach to politics may enjoy a majority in the NRP's central committee, but within religious Zionism as a whole the picture is not as clear. According to recent polls, the NRP would receive about three to four mandates in the coming elections compared to National Union's four to five. Even within the NRP, Orlev's success is the product of a lack of competition. Eitam, his principal rival, did not devote time and energy to building support in the central committee when he was chairman. A former IDF officer, Eitam also brought to politics a bossy military style that failed to win the support of his peers. If Orlev were faced with a charismatic, politically savvy opponent he might not fare so well. But for the time being he has little to worry about.