As is typical in such political negotiations, the National Religious Party
and the National Union's
merger talks seemed stalled late this week, with their respective leaders, former ministers Zevulun Orlev
and Benny Elon
, unable to agree on the terms of their betrothal.
Still, with all due respect to the differences that currently leave this amalgamation suspended, the NRP has already effectively accepted the principle of joining a far-Right party whose agenda is light-years apart from what guided the movement that was founded in 1902. Back then, led by Rabbi Isaac Jacob Reines, the Mizrachi movement set out to bridge between the Zionist mainstream and Jewish Orthodoxy, whose leadership was largely hostile to the Zionist idea.
Since then, the national religious movement has indeed established itself as a bridge builder that makes sure to remain within reasonable distance of the national consensus. As such, it built dozens of successful kibbutzim, moshavim and urban neighborhoods for observant people, as well as an elaborate educational system and assorted companies, from Mishav to United Mizrahi Bank
, all of which reflected the movement's universally admired goals of remaining well within the Israeli mainstream while retaining its distinctive way of life.
In that spirit, it also made sure to join all of David Ben-Gurion's
, Golda Meir's
and Levi Eshkol's
coalitions, and promote legislation that would foster the Jewish state's Jewish character, while taking into consideration its secular demographics.
On foreign affairs, Orthodox Zionism was on the whole moderate, so much so that in 1967 its longtime leader Moshe Haim Shapira and his colleagues opposed the launching of the Six Day War
, and while that war raged they opposed the conquest of Jerusalem's Old City
, including of course, the Western Wall. Back in 1904 Reines even backed Theodore Herzl's
controversial Uganda Plan, which sought to settle Jews in East Africa until a charter for Palestine
could be obtained.
Even in the war's immediate aftermath, the NRP had yet to assume the land-based notion of national destiny and hawkishness that would later become its hallmark. Initially, its representatives adopted the land-for-peace formula, as reflected in their support of the June 19, 1967 government resolution that accepted this principle.
In the following years, however, the NRP rapidly moved rightwards, as its voters increasingly followed the theology that found the 1967 conquests divine, and territorial concessions profane. Consequently, the NRP was a major supplier of inhabitants and leaders for the settlements of the West Bank and Gaza. The NRP now found itself in unfamiliar territory not only geographically but also politically. Suddenly the movement was spearheading an effort that wrapped together Israel's soul with its size, and that sparked the vehement opposition of large parts of the public.
Last summer, the cause that has guided the NRP for the previous two generations suffered a debilitating blow, as 25 settlements were evacuated as part of the disengagement plan. No less devastating than this loss itself was the apparent considerable public backing of that move, an attitude that seemed to disprove the NRP's
traditional insistence that "deep in its soul" mainstream Israel shared its territorialism.
Post-disengagement, in a political atmosphere in which almost every party is seeking to flesh out its domestic platform, the NRP faces a historic call to reconsider its path. Even if the NRP's brand of messianism was not at risk of being marginalized - as reflected by the support for Ariel Sharon
and disengagement - this would seem to be a year when the party's traditional role as a social-religious bridge builder begs to be restored.
The more the NRP sank roots beyond the Green Line, the less its impact was felt in Israel proper, where it all but gave up on massive constituencies like the non-Ashkenazi working class and the post-Soviet immigration.
Nothing expresses this failure to seize the historic moment better than leader Zevulun Orlev's turning on his own path of moderation and getting ready to pair up with the National Union. Presumably, he sees this as the party's only hope of political survival. If so, it is an odd strategy to more tightly embrace such a clearly limited, and probably shrinking, constituency. Shapira and Reines, meanwhile, must be turning in their graves.