NRP's backstory

Since its inception in 1955, the National Religious Party has striven to bring together diverse streams within religious Zionism.

religious party merger 88 248 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
religious party merger 88 248
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Since its inception in 1955, the National Religious Party has striven to bring together diverse streams within religious Zionism. The party was created as the result of a merger between the socialist, working-class Hapoel Hamizrahi and the bourgeois, quasi-haredi Mizrahi. Hapoel Hamizrahi drew its electoral strength from the religious kibbutzim, moshavim and religious proletariat living in urban areas. It was significantly strengthened by the waves of immigration from Muslim countries in the 1950s and 1960s. In contrast Mizrahi received support from middle- and upper-class, predominantly Ashkenazi modern Orthodox. It was politically close to the Revisionist movement and sought to tighten ties with the Ashkenazi haredim. For nearly three decades, until the election of 1981, the NRP enjoyed electoral stability. It consistently received between 10 and 12 Knesset seats. However, in the 1981 elections which followed the Likud's meteoric rise to power, the NRP suddenly lost half of its votes and received only six seats. It lost votes to Tami, a Sephardi religious party established by Aharon Abuhatzeira, who broke away from the NRP over ethnic tensions. In parallel, Tehiya was created to appeal to a more hawkish constituency that included religious Zionists. The NRP also lost votes to the Likud. In 1984 additional parties that appealed directly to the NRP's constituents appeared on the political scene. Tehiya and Tami were joined by Shas, Tzomet, Morasha and Druckman's Meitzad. In subsequent years parties such as Moledet and a list headed by Hebron-based settlement leader Rabbi Moshe Levinger that failed to muster the minimum number of votes to enter the Knesset caused further electoral damage to the NRP. Only in 1996 did the NRP manage to temporarily return to its old political strength, receiving nine seats. In 1999 it returned to five seats. Political scientist Menachem Friedman has argued in the past that the NRP's rise and fall in popularity at the polls was directly related to a subjective feeling of threat among religious Zionist voters. In periods when voters felt threatened, either ideological or religiously, by the dominant government the NRP gained strength. In the years leading up to the Likud's rise to power, the NRP's constituency perceived Mapai as a both an ideological and religious threat. Religious Zionism saw itself as a full partner with secular Zionism in the building of the State of Israel. Nevertheless, the anti-religious aspects of the dominant Mapai leadership were seen as a negative influence on religious Israelis. Identifying with and supporting the NRP was a defensive tactic against potentially detrimental secular influence. With the rise of the Likud, a party that was congenial to religion and religious parties' demands, the threat dissipated and the NRP swiftly lost support. In the 1996 elections there was once again a perceived threat. The Labor Party was in power, and the Oslo Accords, strongly opposed by the majority of religious Zionists, were being implemented. Moreover, the elections followed shortly after the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin by Yigal Amir, who was identified as a religious Zionist. The assassination sparked a severe public attack against the NRP's constituency. Voters rallied around their traditional party in a defensive act. The NRP gained strength. With the rise of the Likud in 1996, the threat against religious Zionism was averted and once again, in 1999, the NRP fell to six seats. The 2006 elections were a turning point for the NRP. For the first time in its 50-year history, it did not run alone. Also, this was the first time in three decades that the NRP ran unchallenged by a competing religious Zionist or quasi-religious Zionist list. Nevertheless, the results were disastrous for the NRP, which received just three Knesset seats of the nine won by the combined National Union/NRP list. These were the worst results in the NRP's history.