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Two Orthodox Cabinet Members Struggle for Control of Nrp

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A bitter power struggle for leadership of the troubled National Religious Party has two Orthodox Cabinet ministers at swords point.

Zevulun Hammer, minister of religious affairs, and Yosef Shapira, who holds no portfolio, are neighbors in the religious township of Bnei Brak, north of Tel Aviv, and worship at the same synagogue. But they are not speaking to each other, save to hurl invectives.

“Liar,” “gangster,” “sewage” are some of the insults the volatile Shapira flung at Hammer at an NRP executive meeting here last week. He was responding to Hammer’s accusation of “Kahanism” which Shapira drew upon himself by suggesting that Palestinians each be paid $20,000 to leave the “Land of Israel,” meaning Israel and the administered territories, to settle abroad.

This is close to the line taken by Rabbi Meir Kahane and his extremist Kach party. Shapira has backtracked to a degree, claiming he was quoted out of context. But his supporters in the chronically divided NRP maintain that he simply articulated the unvoiced opinion of many of the party’s rank and file.

The public battle within the NRP is to fill the vacuum left when its veteran leader, Dr. Yosef Burg, finally stepped down last year after having served in virtually every government since the state was founded.

Hammer, for years a sharp critic and detractor of the moderate Burg, saw himself as heir apparent. But he was promptly challenged by Shapira and Rabbi Haim Druckman, both of whom defected from the NRP some years ago.

In the early 1980s, they led an NRP faction to form a new Orthodox party, Matzad. It merged subsequently with the Poalei Agudat Israel to form the Morasha party. Now, members of the disbanded Matzad, many of them settlers in the West Bank, have returned to the NRP fold and are chaffing at Hammer’s relative moderation. They are pushing Shapira and Druckman for the party leadership.

SHAPIRA READY TO FIGHT

Druckman has indicated he wants out of the hurly-burly of Knesset polities. But Shapira, 61, who first entered the political arena at age 50 after a long career as secretary of the Bnei Akiva religious youth movement, is spoiling for a fight.

In interviews and speeches he has cast Hammer, leader of the NRP’s young-guard faction, as in fact a representative of the old guard under which the party’s Knesset representation dropped from 10-12 seats to its present five.

Hammer contends that with Shapira at the party’s helm, the ideological differences between the NRP and the secular far right-wing Tehiya party would be blurred. In that event, NRP voters on the right would vote for Tehiya or the Orthodox Sephardic faction, Shas.

Hammer is keen to present himself as moderate, statesmanlike and experienced. He would appeal to the moderate NRP voters who identified in the past with Burg and Zerah Warhaftig, and, before them, with Moshe Haim Shapiro, who was a minister in the governments of David Ben Gurion, Levi Eshkol and Golda Meir.

But some in the NRP want neither Hammer nor Shapira to head the party in the next Knesset elections. The small but influential Kibbutz Hadati movement says either man would mean a continuation of factional infighting that has almost destroyed the party.

But neither Kibbutz Hadati nor any other group within the NRP has come up with alternative candidates.

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