NRP-NU merge ahead of elections

United list hope to get as many as 15 seats in the next Knesset.

benny elon 298.88 (photo credit: [file])
benny elon 298.88
(photo credit: [file])
In a historic move, the two major right-wing religious parties in Israel united Thursday into one new list, ending months of on-again off-again negotiations to create a merger between the religious Zionist camp in the country ahead of this spring's national elections. The landmark merger between the ultra-nationalist National Union (NU) and the National Religious Party (NRP) was finalized in the wake of massive pressure put on the two parties by leading Modern Orthodox rabbis to seal a deal, and came in the wake of public opinion polls which indicated that the NRP was fast fading into oblivion, barely crossing the election threshold needed to enter the Knesset. "When we are united, we have power," said MK Benny Elon at a Jerusalem press conference Thursday morning announcing the merger, flanked by his new party colleagues. The hawkish Elon will head the party list followed by the NRP's Zvulun Orlev but according to the merger agreement, the latter, who played hard to get until the very end of the negotiations, will receive the senior government or Knesset portfolio the new right-wing party list receives. Calling the much-touted merger "a historic holiday for Zionism," Orlev said that the party list would be the answer to the void felt in the Zionistic public following the Gaza pullout and the diminution of traditional Jewish morals and values in the country. "There is no doubt that a Kadima government represents a threat to the country's Jewish identity," he said, in blistering criticism against the centrist party formed by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and now run by Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, which is expected to sweep the elections. In a moment of introspection, Orlev, who had been involved in a bitter political feud with Elon for months now over the merger, conceded that he and his fellow right-wing parliamentarians had previously put personal interests ahead of the national interest in delaying the merger. Indeed already last year, public opinion polls commissioned by the parties had indicated that the two rightist parties could more than double their current strength if they would merge, prompting months of negotiations between the two parties. But as they dawdled in forming the merger, their own numbers in the polls began to drop, with the latest newspaper polls published Thursday indicating that running alone the NU would have won four to six seats, while the NRP would barely make it into the Knesset, with as few as two seats. Party officials said Thursday that as a united party list they now hoped to win around 15 seats in the March 28 elections, making them one of the largest political parties in the Knesset. According to the agreement worked out in the merger, both parties will commit themselves in writing - via a letter to be deposited with two senior Modern Orthodox rabbis - not to quit the newly formed right-wing list for at least two years, following concerns that Orlev would pull the NRP out of the newly-formed list right after the election. In contrast to the jubilation at the press conference, the left-leaning religious Meimad party, which is running on the Labor List, slammed the NRP for the merger with "extremists," calling it a "sad day for religious Zionism," which, Meimad said, stemmed from the party's fear that it will not gain even one Knesset seat in the elections. The long-in-coming merger was encumbered by the fact that traditionally the National Religious Party has always been more centrist than the hawkish National Union on core political issues. The leader of the National Religious Party set off a storm among National Union parliamentarians earlier this year when he said that closing a school was worse than dismantling a settlement, a view he basically repeated at Thursday's press conference, signaling that differences of opinion between the right-wing parliamentarians still remained despite their now united list.