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Behind the Headlines: New Centrist Religious Party May Play Key Role in Elections

With six weeks to go until national elections here, anything is still possible in the battle for political power that will not only produce a new government but may determine the future of the administered territories and the prospects of reaching a peace settlement with Israel’s Arab neighbors.

While the opinion polls are far from conclusive, the pundits consistently discern a swing to the right. Most of them are prepared to assert, with a fair degree of certainty, that the center-left Labor Party can hope to govern only if it succeeds in sundering the ties that have bound the religious parties to the right-of-center Likud bloc for more than a decade.

If the religious bloc persists in siding with Premier Yitzhak Shamir’s Likud and its rightist allies, say these observers, it is well nigh impossible to see how Labor could stitch together a workable coalition, even if it were to decide to incorporate the farthest-left factions in such a government.

It is against this political-arithmetical backdrop that the newly created centrist religious party, Meimad, has come to the fore in recent weeks as a possibly decisive factor in the coalition-making that will begin as soon as the election results are known on the night of Nov. 1.

The party, led by Rabbi Yehuda Amital, the dean of the Har Etzion Yeshiva in Alon Shvut, is still too new for the polls to be able to give it a meaningful prognosis for Election Day.

But its energetic campaigning, both in the press and through personal contacts, has already made it a talking-point in broad religious circles.

It is, so to speak, “on the map” — a feat that already distinguishes it from a plethora of fly-by-night parties that have announced their birth in this anything-goes pre-election period.

Much of the credit for this initial success of this moderate religious list must go to the leader, Amital, himself.

CHARISMATIC PERSONALITY

His name and charismatic personality are well known throughout the Orthodox community, from the far right to the Kibbutz Hadati, the left-leaning religious kibbutz movement. The men and women he has gathered around him, moreover, represent a broad swath of rabbinical, academic and lay society.

The rabbi, though a political neophyte, is savvy enough not to plight his troth in advance. He refuses to say categorically that, if elected, he would side only with Labor, never under any circumstances with Likud.

And the Labor Party leader, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, is keeping a deliberate distance, not wishing to smother the fledgling party in an embarrassingly dovish embrace.

But plainly Amital’s purpose once in the Knesset would be to challenge the identification between religion and nationalism that has underpinned the Likud’s power since Menachem Begin’s first coalition in 1977 with the religious parties.

Today, many thoughtful political observers here consider that coalition to have been the former Likud leader’s most salient and lasting success on the domestic politic scene.

Over the years, what began as a partnership of expediency has steadily grown into an ideological alliance, with the religious parties — even the non-Zionist Agudat Yisrael — moving steadily toward the right of the political spectrum.

For Amital, a Holocaust survivor whose yeshiva was the first hesder institution, where students combine Torah study with army service, the initial stirrings of discomfort occurred during the 1982 Lebanon war.

Long a loyal member of the National Religious Party, he gave voice to his criticism in articles and sermons. But he stopped short of forcing a political schism.

‘A TIME TO ACT’

Now, mainly because of the nine-month-old Palestinian uprising, he has reluctantly taken the plunge. “This is a time to act,” he wrote to his followers. “The Torah has a relevant message.”

Perhaps the growing popularity of the “transfer” concept — particularly on the religious right — gave the rabbi’s political determination an added urgency.

“The forced expulsion of the Arab population as a means of solving our demographic or political problems is morally repugnant and politically self-destructive,” Amital wrote in opposition to the idea.

He insisted above all that “on the question of life and death, religious Zionism must not obstruct the way to peace, even if it entails painful compromises, on condition that genuine security is secured.”

To illustrate just how painful the compromises he advocates are likely to be, Amital has said he would give up his own home and his yeshiva in the context of a true peace agreement.

They are built in the Gush Etzion, 10 miles south of Jerusalem. The land was owned and settled by religious Jews before 1948, but was lost to the Jordanians during the War of Independence and became part of the West Bank from 1948 to 1967.

Amital’s statement shocked many. But it hammered home his message. The party’s platform reads: “Meimad is committed to the principle that the peace, welfare and preservation of the Jewish people and the State of Israel take precedence over the goal of political control of the entirety of the Land of Israel.”

AGAINST IMPOSED LEGISLATION

On religious issues, Meimad takes a line which is anathema to the other religious parties: It strongly opposes religious legislation that is imposed on the Knesset by political horsetrading, and then enforced on a largely hostile public.

That is not the way to win hearts, Amital wrote. It is “a profanation of the sacred name. We will not keep silent … Religious Zionists should serve as a bridge between extreme positions.”

Meimad has taken an independent stand too on the currently controversial question of women serving on religious councils — the bodies that run religious services in each city.

This is hotly opposed by all the other religious parties and by the Chief Rabbinate. But Meimad says it “supports the full integration of women in public and political life.”

The No. 3 candidate on Meimad’s Knesset list (after Amital and educator Haim Rippel of Safed) is a woman, Tova Ilan, a noted kibbutz movement intellectual. The other religious parties field no women at all in realistic slots.

The pundits say Meimad, as a new party, will have done well to win two seats, or even one.

But on Nov. 2, the day after elections, every seat will count. And if Rabbi Amital, whose Orthodoxy and piety are unimpeachable, sides with Labor, that could trigger a domino effect among some of the other religious parties.

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