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NEWS ANALYSIS Israel’s far right joins forces, boosting prospects for election

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JERUSALEM, March 10 (JTA) — The far right of Israel’s political spectrum appears on the verge of merging its various feuding factions into a solid electoral bloc that has a good chance of scoring well in the upcoming elections. Haunted by the memory of past failures to join forces at election time, leaders of the Herut, Moledet and Tekuma parties sat through almost 36 hours of haggling before announcing Tuesday that they had neared agreement on a common platform and a joint list of Knesset candidates. Last-minute haggling over details could threaten the entire agreement, but that appeared unlikely. The merger would be no small achievement, given the bad blood and ideological differences that have affected their self-styled nationalist camp in the recent past. As an example of the bad blood that had to be overcome, Ze’ev “Benny” Begin, who is expected to become the new bloc’s leader and candidate for prime minister, began his breakaway from the Likud two months ago with a pledge not to ally with the far-right Moledet Party under Rehavam Ze’evi, who has openly advocated the transfer of Palestinians from the Land of Israel. Under the deal being worked out, Ze’evi will be Begin’s No. 2 on the combined list. And transferring the Arab population will not be part of the platform, but each party in the new bloc wants to reserve the right to vote its conscience on matters of principle. There are three parties in the bloc: HERUT, led by Begin, revives the party founded by his father, former Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Benny Begin quit Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Cabinet in January 1997 to protest the Hebron Agreement, under which Israel ceded most of the City of the Patriarchs to the Palestinian Authority. Originally founded in 1948, the party in recent years had become part of the Likud bloc. Since quitting Likud, Begin’s strong personal and political antipathy to the prime minister has deepened — hence his decision not only to set up a separate party that is committed to Likud’s original dogma of Greater Israel, but to run against Netanyahu in the May 17 race for prime minister. Begin, like his close friend Dan Meridor — who also bolted Netanyahu’s government and is now party of the new centrist party — sees Netanyahu’s administration as a period of sustained erosion of the rule of law in Israel. So profound is his dislike for the premier that even now Begin is not prepared to tell prospective his new partners in the far-right bloc that he will urge his supporters to vote for Netanyahu against Labor Party leader Ehud Barak — or centrist candidate Yitzhak Mordechai — if there is a runoff vote for premier on June 1. Herut’s second-in-command is Michael Kleiner, originally a member of David Levy’s Gesher Party, who headed up the hawkish Land of Israel bloc in the outgoing Knesset. MOLEDET, under Ze’evi and Binyamin Elon, the party’s two representatives in the outgoing legislature, has consistently articulated rightist opposition to the present government from the day Netanyahu assumed power, speaking and voting against the Hebron Agreement, the Wye accord reached in October — and indeed against the entire peace process. Ze’evi, a former army general, is a personal friend of such former Labor leaders as Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. But politically he went beyond the mainstream pale by embracing the racist doctrine of Arab population transfers first advocated by the late, militantly anti- Arab Rabbi Meir Kahane. Successive Likud governments barred Ze’evi from joining them, though in 1990, when left with no other alternative except calling new elections, then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir brought him into the government. Begin’s supporters point to the absence of the population-transfer doctrine from the new bloc’s platform as a measure of their leader’s success in shaping the outcome of this week’s three-way negotiations. Others say the absence of the words does not — indeed cannot — erase the fact that the “transferists,” shunned until now, are firmly inside the far-right fold. Ze’evi, meanwhile, contends that if the new bloc is offered one seat in a new Netanyahu government, he — Ze’evi — should be the minister, given his seniority and experience. TEKUMA, led by legislators Hanan Porat and Zvi Handel, claims to represent the vast majority of the settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The two broke away from the National Religious Party last week after the NRP Central Committee voted them relatively low positions on the party’s list of Knesset candidates in the upcoming elections. Porat in particular, a founder of the Orthodox settlers movement Gush Emunim, is seen as an icon within that group. His rebuff by the NRP was interpreted by some political pundits as signaling the party’s desire to shed the far-rightist mantle that it has donned in recent years. Reflecting that desire to change its image, the NRP slate contains such relative moderates as Yitzhak Langental and Zevulun Orlev, people who, unlike Porat and Handel, long ago made their peace with the Oslo process and with the fact that the mainstream right in Israel, as represented by the Likud, is committed to continue the peace process with the Palestinians. This interpretation links the NRP’s leftward shift to the challenge mounted against it by Meimad, the moderate Orthodox movement. Last week, Meimad joined Barak’s “One Israel” bloc, which will bring together Labor, Gesher and Meimad on one ticket. One of the motivations behind the three far-right parties’ decision to merge dates back to the 1992 election. Depending on how one evaluates the figures, the failure of the far right to pull together may have contributed to Rabin’s election victory and his pro-peace government, which he formed with the secularist Meretz Party and the fervently Orthodox Shas Party and which was supported in the Knesset by the Arab parties. That election led to a new dynamic in Israeli-Palestinian relations and the Oslo accords, which are still regarded as an epic disaster by rightist Israelis. Thousands of votes were wasted at that time on rightist parties, led by Rabbi Moshe Levinger of Hebron and by veteran firebrand Geula Cohen, that did not make it across the threshold — the minimum number of votes required by a party to secure Knesset representation. That threshold is now set by law at 1.5 percent of the votes cast. If the three far-right parties were to fight the May 17 election separately, any one of them could face the danger of falling below that figure. Fighting together, they look set, according to current opinion polls, to draw sufficient support for seven or eight Knesset seats — which could make them a force to contend with in the next legislature.

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