Jerusalem (May. 27)
Religious Affairs Minister Aharon Abu-Hatzeira broke away from the National Religious Party today and announced that he will run for the Knesset on June 30 at the head of a new religious list. His surprise move was a severe blow to the NRP, already riven by factional disputes and now split along Sephardic-Ashkenazic lines.
Abu-Hatzeira, who is Moroccan by birth, frankly acknowledged that there are now two “NRPs”, one headed by Yosef Burg, Zevulun Hammer and Yehuda Ben-Meir who are Ashkenazim, and the other by Oriental Jews. He delivered a further surprise by announcing that the No. 2 man on his list will be former Agriculture Minister Aharon Uzan, late of the Labor Alignment. The third place will be held by another NRP defector, MK Benzion Rubin. Both men are Sephardim.
Abu-Hatzeira said he established his new list — Tami Tenuat Massoret Israel — (Movement for Israel’s Tradition) — because the NRP did not really want him but intended to use him to attract Sephardic voters. Hammer, who is Education Minister in the Likud government, made a last ditch effort to persuade Abu-Hatzeira to change his mind but conceded late tonight that “The case is closed, there is nothing more to talk about.” NRP leaders claimed later that they had expected Abu-Hatzeira’s defection for some time. They said he was encouraged to form a new list by Nissim Gaon, president of the World Sephardi Federation. Uzan, chairman of the Sephardi Federation of Israel, is a confidant of Gaon, a millionnaire businessman and philanthropist who lives in Switzerland. He reportedly decided to quit the Labor Alignment after he failed to win a “safe” seat on its 118-member election slate.
PREDICTS LIST WILL WIN SIX SEATS
Abu-Hatzeira predicted that his list would win at least six Knesset mandates. Political analysts said that if he succeeds, he would be able to bargain with the NRP from a position of strength and possibly merge his new faction with it on favorable terms. On the other hand, Uzan’s presence on his ticket indicated that the new party might join a Labor-led coalition government if the Alignment wins the elections.
Abu-Hatzeira goes into the elections with a severe handicap. Although a Jerusalem magistrates court acquitted him last week of charges of bribe-taking, he faces a new trial on charges of fraud and embezzlement stemming from his stewardship of a charitable organization when he was Mayor of Ramle five years ago. The Knesset last week stripped him of his immunity so that he could stand trial.
While Hammer was bitter over Abu-Hatzeira’s defection and accused him of “polarizing the people,” Interior Minister Burg, reacted philosophically. “This is both a tragedy and a hope, a tragedy over what happened and a hope for the future,” he said.