Heading for a political fall?

Negotiations to create a united religious-Zionist bloc are underway.

religious zionists 298.8 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
religious zionists 298.8
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The future of religious Zionism as a political force looks grim. Recent polls give the National Union (NU) five mandates and the National Religious Party (NRP) just four, a grand total of nine - one less than their current 10 mandates. Hope that a combined NRP and the NU would have more electoral value than the sum of the two parties' mandates sparked unity negotiations. But compromise, even for the sake of unity and electoral success, is not easy. Zevulun Orlev, Chairman of the NRP, is struggling against NU to get Greater Israel off center stage. In its place he wants education, Jewish identity and social welfare. Orlev envisions a throwback to the historic Mizrahi - led by the late Yosef Burg - a party that was moderate in its diplomatic platform and realistic in its politics. Mizrahi functionaries had religious sensibilities but saw the state in functional terms. Orlev is having difficulty convincing the National Union. Men like NU Chairman Benny Elon, Uri Ariel, Effi Eitam, Yitzhak Levi and Tzvi Hendel identify with Gush Emunim theology that views Greater Israel as an integral step toward final redemption. For these men and many of their followers the state of Israel is not just a means of protection for Jews' bodies, it is a vehicle for the redemption of their souls. As Rabbi Yishai Babad, secretary of the rabbinic council for settlements in Judea, Samaria and Gaza, puts it, "everyone likes to see himself as a big rationalist. But we know that spiritualism is what motivates. Messianism gave birth to Zionism. It is the driving force that makes it possible for us to survive here against all the odds. Without it we are lost." The battle against disengagement from Gaza and northern Samaria tapped into these messianic forces. Masses were mobilized. The "orange" sub-culture was born. For MK Hendel (NU), a former resident of Neveh Dekalim, including Greater Israel in the election campaign is essential as a motivating force for ultimate success. "We'll have our wonderful orange youth canvassing house-to-house spreading the message, the way we did before the expulsion [from Gaza]," he says. Immanuel Shiloh, editor-in-chief of BeSheva, a religious-Zionist weekly targeting settler readership, estimates that if Orlev insists on steering the NRP back to the classic Mizrahi, he will lose the younger generation of religious Zionism. "Settler youth does not want to go back to the historical Mizrahi which saw itself as subservient to the Zionist endeavor," says Shiloh, 40, who spent most of his adult life in yeshivot, including the religious-Zionist flagship, Merkaz Harav, first established by Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook. "Today's youth wants to have an impact. They want to transform the state from the inside. Excelling in the IDF, becoming officers and combat soldiers, is not just a patriotic duty. It is a religious act. Our youth move to development towns to set up Torah communities because they are instilled with idealism and enthusiasm that emanates from their religious faith." Nevertheless, as political pragmatists Orlev and Elon understand that to expand electorally the NRP-NU merger must appeal to more moderate and non-religious constituents. The NRP took an important step in this direction by opening its party to "traditional" members, as the NU has already done. "There are thousands of people who keep kosher, certain aspects of Shabbat and family purity," says Orlev. "We have to embrace those people." True, Orlev runs the risk that while trying to woo constituents ideologically to the left of NRP-NU, he may end up losing the right wing in the process. He is willing to take the gamble, and rightfully so. Besides Baruch Marzel, a follower of Rabbi Meir Kahana, there is no one to the right of the National Union. Marzel is not expected to receive the minimum amount of votes needed to enter the Knesset. Although Marzel claims he will capitalize on the disenchantment and alienation felt by many settlers and religious Zionists to the state, others are skeptical. BeSheva' s Shiloh reckons that no more than a few hundred voters who are fed up with post-disengagement Israel and have decided to "disengage" from the state will stay away from the voting booths on March 28. "As elections get closer, people realize that they have too much to lose by note voting," he says. "And the Marzel option is seen as a waste of a vote." Orlev estimates that the right-wing settler vote is already secured. The trick is attracting more voters who supported the Likud in the previous elections. "With people like Hendel and Eitam on the list I don't have to talk about Greater Israel," he says. RESOLVING THE argument over Greater Israel's place in the united party's platform has far-reaching ramifications. What is at stake is not just the campaign slogan, but the party's fiscal priorities. Should it negotiate with the coalition for more building in Judea and Samaria, or should it use political pressure to fund state religious schools? Elon claims there is a danger in Orlev's attempt to steer the united list away from the Greater Israel ideal. "Our constituents are liable to get the impression that we are somehow apologizing," he says. "As if we are saying, 'Too much energy has been devoted to settlements at the expense of other issues.'" Education and social equality were never abandoned by religious Zionist's political leadership, says Hendel. "I taught in a Hesder Yeshiva for years before entering politics," says Elon. "Hendel chose to be deputy minister of education out of his commitment to that issue. Rabbi Yitzhak Levi was an educator in yeshivot in the south before coming to the NRP." Elon is right. The NRP and the NU have enough educators on board. But they lack an MK who is "strongly identified with social-equality issues," a euphemism for Sephardim. In fact, of NRP's and NU's 10 MKs, only one - Levi - is Sephardi. And he is not even identified as one. Orlev agrees. "It's a problem that needs to be rectified," he says. "If we want to hold onto Beit El and Ofra, we have to help Sderot and Kiryat Shmona," continues Orlev, who understands that the Sephardic vote is identified with development towns outside the nation's large cities that suffer from high unemployment and low income. "We have to bring on board people who are identified with social-welfare issues," he adds, implying that some of the newcomers would be Sephardim. Some of the names mentioned include NRP old-timers Shmariyahu Ben-Tzur and Eli Gabai. Rabbi Rachamim Nissimi, who heads a program which sends groups of young, religious-Zionist families to development towns, has also been mentioned. Shiloh, a supporter of the merger, who plastered a photo of Orlev and Elon shaking hands and smiling broadly on the front page of last week's BeSheva, recommends that one of the new MKs be someone strongly identified with the battle against disengagement. Avi Farhan, founder of Elei Sinai and one of the leaders of opposition against the the Yamit evacuation, would be perfect. Not only is he identified with the anti-disengagement movement, he is also Sephardi. Orlev and Elon hope that unity combined with new faces and a revamped agenda will catapult the list from its current 10 mandates to 15. "If you consider the fact that state religious schools make up 18 percent of the total student body, we should be receiving more than 20 mandates," says Orlev. Still, even in the best-case scenario - with a united NRP-NU list mustering 15 mandates - it is doubtful that Orlev and Elon will manage to join a coalition. With a Likud headed by Binyamin Netanyahu estimated at nine-11 mandates, compared to 37 for Kadima and 26 for Labor, a right-wing government is out of the question. The NRP-NU list's only chance would be to join a coalition led by either Kadima or Labor. This is difficult to envision, since even the dovish Orlev demands as a precondition for joining a coalition that any territorial compromises be approved in a referendum. The bad blood between NU MKs and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon make a Kadima-NU coalition nearly impossible. In contrast, Shas and United Torah Judaism, both more flexible than a NRP-NU list on diplomatic issues, would be the natural choice for any centrist or left-wing coalition. In the meantime, negotiations between the NRP and the NU hit a snag Monday and all talk of unity may be superfluous. In addition to the ideological argument over Greater Israel, the two sides began squabbling over positions on the list. The NRP wants equal representation on the top 10. The NU insists on five MKs. The sides have already agreed that two new faces will man the top 10. Negotiators will have to solve the math. Another obstacle is NU's insistence that Elon stand at the head of the united list, while Orlev wants this to be decided by polls a month before the elections. Even if the two sides manage, somehow, to overcome their differences, the match will be strained and unconvincing. Potential voters will have the impression, rightly, that the union is short-lived. As a result, the added value of voting for a larger political party will be lost. The question many religious Zionists are asking is, "Where are the masses who gathered at Kfar Maimon, Sderot and Ofakim, the crowds who demonstrated inside Gaza, who passed out orange ribbons and tee-shirts and went from door to door to protest disengagement?" It is hard for many to believe that all that energy and hope boils down to 10-15 mandates at the polls. "The shift in the political landscape is a wonder for us," says Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip spokeswoman Emily Amrusy. "I guess it proves that most people are essentially indifferent - malleable electoral power in the hands of a strong politician like Sharon."