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Nrp in Disarray, May Lose Pivotal Role in Next Knesset

June 5, 1981
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Never in the history of Israel has the National Religious Party (NRP) gone into the final stages of an election campaign looking quite so ragged and sorry for itself.

Through nine campaigns and nine Knessets, the NRP has been a bedrock of stability on the Israeli political scene. It always polled in the region of 9-10 percent of the votes. It almost always participated in the governing coalition of the day –before 1977 under the leadership of Labor, and during the last four years under that of Menachem Begin’s Likud.

Indeed, only a few weeks ago it seemed that the picture would repeat itself once more on June 30. Pundits predicted that if there was any change in NRP’s prospects it would be a change for the better. NRP key men waxed super-optimistic during the early months of this year, predicting that they could add two or even three Knesset seats to their 1977 score of 12.

Now everything has changed. The party is in tatters following the dramatic defection of Religious Affairs Minister Aharon Abu Hatzeira who is founding a separate religious party, “Tami” (Tenua Lemassoret Yisrael — Movement for the Tradition of Israel).


Tami is openly and unabashedly “ethnic.” Abu Hatzeira, in interviews in the past week cited as his reason for creating the new party the refusal of the “ethnic Ashkenazi” leadership of the NRP to allocate more than two of the first dozen spots on the NRP list to Sephardim. This, Abu Hatzeira noted, was “a retrogression” compared to 1977, and far below the level of representation to which the party’s Sephardi membership felt themselves entitled.

Very probably the motives and circumstances behind the establishment of Tami are far deeper than that. According to rumors circulating in political circles, an “ethnic” list of this nature had been mulled over by Sephardi politicians from a number of parties for many months and even years.

The role of millionaire Geneva financier and president of the World Sephardi Federation Nissim Gaon in backing — or perhaps pushing for — the creation of an “ethnic” party is not yet fully known either. Abu Hatzeira, naturally, sought in his public interviews to play down Gaon’s involvement.

But the question that NRP leaders must now contend with is not why Tami was founded but how much damage it will do the parent party. The answers implied in experts’ predictions cannot offer much consolation to veteran NRP leader Yosef Burg and his heir-apparent, Zevulun Hammer.

Abu Hatzeira himself maintains that 75 percent of the card-carrying members of NRP are Sephardim and thus potential voters for Tami. Possibly that is an overstatement. But any objective analysis would conclude that the majority of NRP voters in recent elections have been Sephardim.

At this time, no opinion polls have been conducted on Tami’s vote-pulling potential. But politicians and pundits predict a handsome 4-7 seats for the new party.

Most of those votes would come from the NRP, with fewer from Likud and even less from Labor. For those two major blocs the blow would be bearable; for the NRP it might well spell the end of its enviable balance of power between the two main parties.

Put in other terms, Tami’s success at the polls might rob the NRP of its hitherto unthreatened ability to form a government with either of the two big blocs or to thwart the formation of a government if it chose to do so. This ability would have been particularly potent in the next Knesset if the pollsters are right and the gap between Likud and Labor is only a few seats.

Taking this analysis a step further, it can be understood why Labor Party leaders privately welcomed the creation of Tami. The NRP, which has become increasingly rightist in religious and foreign policy over recent years, had virtually declared its preference for Likud over Labor. Its leaders — especially Hammer and Gush Emunim leader Rabbi Haim Druckman — have made it clear that their party, given the choice, would prefer to cooperate in a Begin coalition rather than with Labor’s Shimon Peres.

The rise of Tami could mean that the NRP will not be given that choice. While Abu Hatzeira himself has said Tami would team up with either of the two main parties, his number two man on the Tami list, Aharon Uzan, a former Laborite, has made clear his own preference for Labor.

“I remain a Mapainik at heart,” says Uzan, a Moshav leader who served as Minister of Agriculture in Labor’s last government. There is a distinct feeling too that Abu Hatzeira’s resentment over his treatment by his Cabinet colleagues during the drawn-out legal process against him (he was acquitted last week on bribery charges after a marathon trial) extends not only to Burg of his own party, but to other members of the present Likud-led coalition.


The defection of Abu Hatzeira, and with him Moroccan-born Benzion Rubin of Burg’s “Lamifne” faction in the NRP, was the latest — but by far the worst — of a series of blows that have rocked the party over recent years. The crisis began, it is fair to say, with the toppling of the man who many felt was NRP’s ablest leader, Dr. Yitzhak Rafael (Minister of Religions 1974-77). This was engineered by a plot led by Hammer and Yehuda Ben-Meir, the chiefs of the “young guard” faction in the party, and Abu Hatzeira, who was Rafael’s deputy in the Likud “Utemura” faction.

The plotters made it clear that they felt themselves to be the rising force within NRP and that, sooner or later, they would move to displace Burg himself.

But the creation of the anti-Begin, anti-peace Tehiya faction by Herut breakaways Geula Cohen and Mose Shamir stirred cold winds of dissent from the far right. The young Bnei Akiva indoctrinated, skullcap wearing settlers on the West Bank and their supporters swung toward the new group whose ultra-nationalism complimented their dreams of restoring Biblical Israel. The NRP’s “young guard” leaders in contrast, appeared tainted by their support of the Camp David autonomy plan and the peace treaty with Egypt.

Accordingly, Hammer and Ben-Meir were forced to appease the NRP’s right-wing, led by Druckman, by placing another Gush Emunim activist, Meir Har-Noi, in the 11th spot on the party’s 1981 election list. This conflicted with Abu Hatzeira’s demand for “safe” spots for his own faction within the party. It also reduced the NRP’s chances of attracting support from non-Orthodox voters, by which it hoped to broaden its base.

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