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Behind the Headlines Soul-searching and Anger

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The two leaders of the National Religious Party’s “young guard” — Education Minister Zevulun Hammer and Deputy Foreign Minister Yehuda Ben-Meir–have become embroiled in an angry confrontation with the Gush Emunim movement which could have serious political consequences for the NRP and eventually for Premier Menachem Begin’s coalition government.

The Gush Emunim, the hard core of the government-backed settlers on the West Bank, launched a bitter attack on Education Minister Hammer following a television interview last week in which Hammer acknowledged that his political views were moderating as a result of the war in Lebanon. He said he had come to realize that “kedushat ha’am” (the holiness of the nation) was as important as “kedushat haretz” (the holiness of the land). He also spoke of the need to respect Palestinian rights.

Hammer a staunch supporter of West Bank settlements in the past, stressed that he still wholeheartedly upheld the right of Jews to settle in all parts of “Eretz Israel” but seemed to equivocate on the ultimate political status of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In a subsequent TV interview, he backtracked but refused to mouth the Gush Emunim formula that “Judaea and Samaria” must remain permanently under Israeli sovereignty.

ATTACKS AND DEFENSE

There was a furious reaction from the Gush Emunim. Rabbi Moshe Levinger, leader of the Kiryat Arba-Hebron settlers, charged that Hammer had “betrayed” the cause or which he was elected and demanded that he resign from the Knesset.

Hammer was also attacked by NRP rightwinger Rabbi Haim Druckman, a Knesset member and Gush Emunim leader. Several Gush Emunim settlements on the West Bank informed Hammer that he was now persona non grata in their midst.

But the Education Minister was strongly defended by his colleague, Deputy Foreign Minister Ben-Meir. Although Ben-Meir has often supported the Gush Emunim position, he publicly blasted them this week for advocating “endless war” for Israel and a policy which would mean that “we would police the world with the blood of our children.” He said it was the Gush Emunim rather than himself and Hammer who had deviated from the principles of religious Zionism.

Both Hammer and Ben-Meir have long been considerably more hard-line on foreign policy matters than the NRP’s elder statesman, Interior Minister Yosef Burg. Burg, for his part, was sharply critical of Begin when the Premier initially resisted the creation of a formal commission of inquiry to investigate Israel’s role if any in the massacre of Palestinians in west Beirut last month.

There appears to be much soul-searching at this juncture within the NRP which, though a minority party, has always held the balance of political strength which enabled the larger parties to establish viable coalition government.

Hammer, in his TV interview last week, hinted that the NRP’s “special message” was perhaps being blurred by the partnership in Begin’s coalition between the even more Orthodox Aguda Israel party and the even more nationalist Likud.

The implication was that the NRP, as a national religious movement, might be better off in partnership with the moderate Labor Alignment, a role it held for some 30 years, before Labor was unseated by Likud in 1977.

The NRP suffered serious losses in the last elections in June, 1981 from which it emerged with only half of the 12 mandates it commanded in the previous Knesset.

Political pundits believe the NRP last three seats to the break-away Tami Party and three to the ultra-nationalist Tehiya Party. Hammer and Ben-Meir, therefore, may calculate that they have already been abandoned by the constituency represented by Gush Emunim and should seek more middle-road partners in the future.

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