The Israeli Elections: the Religious Parties

The religious political parties are small. But they have always held the balance of power between the competing ideological blocs, since none of the major parties has ever amassed sufficient votes to govern alone.

The religious parties include:

NATIONAL RELIGIOUS PARTY. The NRP is now led by Professor Avner Shaki, a law professor and longtime political activist of rightist proclivities.

He went so far as to rule out a coalition deal with Labor. But he subsequently withdrew that statement.

Another key figure of the NRP is Hanan Porat, a founder of the militant Orthodox Gush Emunim settlement movement in the West Bank. He is No. 3 on the party list.

The NRP has been campaigning hard to hold on to a dwindling constituency. It consistently held 10 to 12 Knesset seats until the 1981 elections, when its representation was reduced to six seats.

In the 1984 elections, it won only four. The polls show no prospects for substantial improvement in next week’s elections.

The NRP aims to appeal to the large numbers of Israelis who are products of the religious educational system, of which the NRP is the proud creator.

The election of Shaki as leader with his hawkish political line led to the secession of a group of moderates, who formed a new religious party, Meimad.

It also has created tension among the party loyalists who hung on. Political observers speculate that if the NRP does badly and Meimad does fairly well, and/or if Labor outscores Likud, there will be more defections from the NRP.

The No. 2 candidate on the party list is NRP veteran Zevulun Hammer, who is minister of religious affairs in the current Cabinet. He has been mentioned as a potential defector from NRP. So has the No. 4 man, Mayor Yigal Bibi of Tiberias. Both vigorously deny such intentions.

MEIMAD. This new party is an NRP breakaway that shows promise in the elections, according to public opinion survey.

If the polls are right, it could touch off a domino effect in which the religious parties one-by-one end their decade-long alignment with Likud and begin to move toward Labor.

Meimad has no made no formal commitment to Labor and is keeping its options open. But its platform, which favors territorial concessions for peace, puts it squarely in the Labor camp.

Its positions on religious issues differ from those of the other Orthodox parties. Meimad does not support coercive religious legislation, such as changes in the status of converts or laws governing business on the Sabbath. That makes it a tempting partner for Labor and its non-Orthodox allies.

Meimad is led by Rabbi Yehuda Amital, founder and dean of the Har Etzion yeshiva at Alon Shvut, in the Etzion bloc of settlements south of Jerusalem.

Amital is highly respected in religious and intellectual circles.

DEGEL HATORAH. This is another new breakaway party that could be pivotal in the post-election coalition-building process.

It is led by Jerusalem Rabbi Avraham Ravitz. But the party is the creation of the venerable and feisty sage of Bnei Brak, Rabbi Eliezer Schach.

It represents the culmination of the 92-year-old rabbi’s long and bitter feud with the Hasidic wing of the Agudat Yisrael.

The last straw for Schach was the refusal of the Agudah newspaper Hamodia to reject paid advertisements from the New York-based Chabad Hasidic movement, whose philosophy Schach considers heretical.

The rift left all of the Hasidic movements except Belz in the Agudah, while the Mitnagdim (non-Hasidic Orthodox) cast their lot with Degel Hatorah.

This means that for the first time, the Chabad Hasidim, headed by the Lubavitcher rebbe in New York, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, are taking an active role in an Israeli election.

The importance of Degel’s role stems from Schach’s basically dovish political philosophy. He is an outspoken opponent of the “Greater Israel” school of politics, which advocates the annexation of the administered territories.

But that did not prevent another of his protege parties, the Sephardic Shas, from aligning with Likud in the outgoing Knesset.

SHAS. Known in full as the Sephardi Torah Guardians, this party represents a growing “return to one’s roots” movement among the Sephardic population. It arose from nowhere in the 1984 elections to win four Knesset seats, matching the NRP, which has been in Israeli politics since 1948.

Shas should be a firm ally of Likud. Its leader, Rabbi Yitzhak Peretz, a former interior minister, takes strongly hawkish positions on foreign and domestic issues. The party’s rank-and-file is drawn from Likud and NRP voters.

Still, if the aforementioned domino effect were to materialize, Shas could topple, given the more liberal philosophy of Rabbi Schach, who, though Ashkenazic, is one of the party’s mentors.

The Shas platform stresses Sephardic heritage and traditions. It dwells proudly on the institutions of education and welfare the young movement has established nationwide.

AGUDAT YISRAEL. Another veteran religious party, Agudat Yisrael was stripped of its Sephardic component by the secession of Shas in 1984. It was further decimated by the recent breakaway of Degel Hatorah.

The Agudah has become a pale shadow of the flourishing Orthodox force it once was. It will be fortunate to win two seats in the 12th Knesset.

The party is led by the Gur Hasidim. Its list is headed by a Gur scholar, Rabbi Moshe Feldman, who was handpicked by the aged rebbe of Gur, Rabbi Simcha Bunum Alter.

The No. 2 man is Menachem Porush of Jerusalem, one of the longest serving members of the Knesset.

The Agudah platform focuses on religious issues, but lacks a firm commitment to a “Greater Israel.” It is thus a potential coalition partner of either Labor or Likud.

Which one it chooses will depend on whether the religious right in Israel, which has long underpinned Likud power, begins to erode after the elections.

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