Editor's Notes: Orlev's dilemma

NRP leader may have to choose between his principles and his party's political well-being.

Poor Zevulun Orlev. Here he is, trying to widen the focus of the National Religious Party to matters beyond the status of Greater Israel - to concentrate on education and Jewish identity and social equality, "subjects that feed the nation's soul and values." And there are those dreadful opinion polls, suggesting that the NRP may be heading for an electoral pounding, winning just a handful of seats, and that the road to political salvation runs via an alliance with the National Union party - whose central ethos, unfortunately, is that self-same battle to maintain permanent control over the entire West Bank. The NRP's leader professes himself baffled by the public's preferences, certainly as reflected in the popularity (albeit slightly fading) of Ariel Sharon's Kadima, despite its implausible medley of ill-suited political bedfellows. Asked to pinpoint the secret of Sharon's success, Orlev shrugs his shoulders in despair. "If I could answer that, I'd be prime minister," he observes. If people wanted integrity and proven parliamentary commitment from their leaders, he argues, they'd be voting either for his party or for Meretz - although he stresses the political chasm between his views and theirs - yet both are performing horrendously in the surveys. Orlev personally differs from the National Union on the fate of Judea and Samaria. He opposes separate Palestinian statehood, asserting that Jordan remains the true Palestinian state, and posits that it could have "branches" of sovereignty extending into the main Palestinian population centers in the West Bank. But he does express a reluctant readiness for an eventual and limited territorial compromise in the cause of genuine peace. "I think that God promised all of Israel to the nation of Israel," he says. "I do not want to give anything... But it's clear that in a real peace agreement Israel will have to give up something." And he insists over and over, in the course of an interview in his cramped Knesset office on Wednesday, that there'll be no alliance if the National Union won't accept his wider vision - and that, should the partnership contacts fail, the NRP will take its electoral chances running on its own. "Unity has to come with a new agenda, with education a priority. Otherwise there can't be a joint list," he vows. Not too encouraging then, I venture, that his putative partners are running under the orange banners that colored the anti-disengagement campaign and that their central slogan, unveiled at their campaign launch on Tuesday, is "Orange Now"? No, not too encouraging, he sadly avers. And not too helpful, either, he volunteers, that his fellow NRP Knesset members stand politically to his right and are pushing for the alliance more strongly than he is. Ultimately you won't be able to resist, I suggest. You'll approve the joint list even if the National Union pays little more than lip service to your broader aims. But Orlev is having none of it. He hasn't given up on the idea of an alliance - he estimates he has another week or two at most to try and make it work - but if his demands aren't met, the NRP will absolutely stand its ground. Apparently I look skeptical. "Look, I'm not a coward," he says. It would have been easy to negotiate the partnership on the National Union's terms, he makes plain, but he wasn't prepared to do so. Just as it would have been easy for him to have pulled out of the partnership that had his NRP sitting alongside Shinui in the previous Ariel Sharon-led coalition. He stayed put, he says, despite terrible pressure to pull out, and did so because he was able to prevent a Likud-Labor-Shinui alliance that would have been devastating for the values and institutions of modern Orthodoxy. Evidently I still look skeptical, because Orlev now summons his secretary from the adjoining, tiny outside office. "I don't usually do this," he notes, raising a finger, "but you think I'm a coward and I'm going to prove to you that I'm not." He tells her to take down from her wall a framed document, bring it in and give it to me. The exhibit turns out to be his citation for military valor, presented for his heroic behavior at the very start of the Yom Kippur War, on October 6, 1973. Under Egyptian attack, with his commander dead and many fatalities and casualties around him, Corporal Orlev assumed command of his outpost, galvanized the troops, evacuated the injured and generally displayed exemplary leadership above and beyond anything, the text reads, for which he had been trained. "See that," he says. "Well, when you've seen off the Egyptians, nothing else is going to scare you." Not even, runs the implication, the risk of political eclipse. We shall see.