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The Herut party has evolved since the days when it was led by Benny Begin, that poster child of political purity. First it ran as part of the National Union (in the elections to the 15th Knesset); now it has gone even further afield with last week's addition of Baruch Marzel, the main figure in the Kach movement after the murder of Rabbi Meir Kahane. Begin, who retired from politics soon after the last elections, continues to observe his silence this week. The man who studiously avoided even the slightest whiff of discrimination toward Israeli Arabs throughout his years in the the Knesset refused to respond to Marzel's assumption of the second spot on the Herut Knesset list, in the same way that he chose not to comment in recent years on the demographic legislative initiatives of his heir as the leader of Herut, MK Michael Kleiner.

Nevertheless, it isn't hard to guess how he feels. Begin once labeled Rehavam Ze'evi's ideas on transfer as "political pollution." Nevertheless, in today's Herut party, Begin's beliefs do not merit much credence.

As opposed to the accepted view in the right, which holds that the multiplicity of parties weakens the right and increases the risk that right-wing votes will be lost due to parties not reaching the minimum threshold levels necessary for entry into the Knesset (as happened when Tehiya, Moshe Levinger's Torah and Aretz and Eliezer Mizrachi's Geulat Israel all ran), there is a sense in Herut that in their case, things will turn out otherwise. In internal polls conducted last week on behalf of Herut by the Hanoch Smith polling institute, the party surpassed the minimum threshold, garnering 2.4 percent of the vote. Polls commissioned by two daily newspapers gave Herut one seat in Knesset, while in Yedioth Ahronoth's "roving ballot box," situated this week in Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda market, the party picked up no fewer than five seats - one less than National Union.

Kleiner himself is certain that if Herut breaks through the minimum threshold, it will break through big time, and surprise nay-sayers with five seats, which would come at the expense of Shas, Likud and National Union. In its long history, Herut has run independently in only three election campaigns, one of them overseas - as part of the Zionist movement, when it garnered more votes than Likud and Labor. Here in Israel, it has run in two election campaigns, including the most recent municipal elections. In Lod, Herut won 6 percent of the vote, and Avigdor Lieberman and his National Union added another representative to the city council thanks to its surplus-votes arrangement with Herut. In the two ballot boxes that were placed in Kfar Habad - a suburb of Lod - Herut received more votes than did Maxim Levy, additional evidence of Herut's potential among the Haredi public. In Menahemia, Herut won one seat; a single vote separated it from its second seat.

Delivering the goods

Optimism is not the right word to describe what has been going on in the local branches of this small party since Baruch Marzel joined. It would be more correct to describe it as euphoria. The number of activists and volunteers has grown considerably. MK Michael Kleiner is convinced that Herut's run to the Knesset with a person like Marzel will bring "tens of thousands of voters" out of the house, people who chose not to participate in elections following Kach's disqualification from running for Knesset. "These are people who have for years felt there was no one to vote for. That in Likud, the National Religious Party and National Union, there was on the bottom line a willingness of one degree or another to make territorial compromise, and even to accept a Palestinian state. We are the only ones who deliver the real goods: not an inch - peace only in exchange for peace. When we say about ourselves that we are `the most hawkish party in the right" it isn't just a campaign slogan."

It isn't hard to understand why members of the former Kach movement chose Kleiner and his party. Kleiner focused his activities in the 15th Knesset on the same issues that Rabbi Kahane used to address, albeit his own more blatant manner. Kleiner was much more cautious vis-a-vis the law and its limitations. During the 15th Knesset, the presidium of the Knesset permitted Kleiner to table his proposed legislation for the encouragement of emigration to Arab states. The bill states that an emigration basket of monetary assistance would be granted to any citizen (not necessarily Arab) who migrated to an Arab country and would be willing to give up his citizenship, or his right of residence in exchange for the monetary aid. On another occasion, the Knesset presidium approved (by a 4:3 majority) Kleiner's request to table a legislative proposal that Kleiner called "Loyalty - a condition for citizenship." The proposed legislation demands that every citizen, without difference of origin, race, religion, or sex, would sign a declaration of loyalty to the State of Israel as a Jewish state, including its symbols, flag and national anthem. Anyone who refused to sign would not be a citizen of the state.

Although the two legislative bills were approved by the Knesset presidency, Kleiner chose not to bring them up for a vote because he believed he did not have a majority in support of their passage. He planned a major campaign to promote the measures, but the elections have now disrupted his plans.

The Herut platform for the 16th Knesset states, among other things: "The movement believes the Jewish majority and the Jewish character of the state is at risk, due to the fact that a significant share of Israeli Arabs, who have Israeli citizenship and blue identity cards, describe themselves as Palestinians, for all intents and purposes, and identify with the Palestinian struggle." Herut proposes to set up a government ministry for demographic affairs, to approve the migration law and the loyalty to the state law that Kleiner submitted to the Knesset, and "to encourage non-Jewish families to reunify in their countries of origin outside Israel. All of this would take place in parallel with the encouragement of Jewish immigration, encouragement of childbirth and restriction of migration into the boundaries of Israel."

A Torah-based regime

The differences between Kleiner's Herut and the Kach of Kahane and Marzel are reflected mainly on the religious-legal plane. Kahane, and Marzel, sought to establish a Torah-based regime that would impose halakha (Jewish law). In the dilemma between state and halakha, Kahane's choice was clear. He once wrote: "After all, the Torah is the authority, and its laws obligate the Jew and govern him. In order for us to recognize our authority and our supreme government, in order for us to recognize the fact that the laws of this true authority are binding and are not subject to appeal, we swear our loyalty each day to this government, to this constitution, to this authority. We swear `Here O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.'" The government of Israel, Kahane emphasized, is meant simply "to maintain the internal order and protect the people from external enemies." The obligation to respect this government and obey it is valid only on condition that this government "obeys the Torah, its laws, and the Kingdom of Heaven."

Kleiner makes it clear that the Herut list is not Kach. "It is not racist and not antidemocratic." Marzel claims Kach no longer exists, and that from now on he is loyal to the principles outlined in the Herut movement's platform. The platform does not speak about revenge against the "goyim" [non-Jews], as Kahane and his followers expressed and have continued to express for many years.

Kahane was hostile to the Ashkenazi political establishment, mainly the Labor party. Kleiner is devoid of any such hostility. Kahane inscribed his opposition to democracy onto his flag, and had his reservations about any idea or ideology that was at odds with his interpretation of the Jewish law. Kleiner makes sure at his appearances at the annual memorial observances for Meir Kahane to distance himself from Kach attitudes toward Israeli Arabs, even as he does not conceal how he would handle the demographic problems of the State of Israel.

The connection between Marzel and Kleiner may be understood through a few sections of the movement's platform. Among other things, it states: "The State of Israel is a Jewish and democratic state, in that order." And: "The Jewish character of the State of Israel should be anchored in the Basic Laws."

The differences between Kleiner and Marzel may be obvious to both men, but it is doubtful if they are as obvious to the public at large. Support for the principles of Kahanism and for Kach is swelling, and is tens of percentage points higher now than in the mid-1980s, when Kach - and Kahane - were at their zenith. A study by researchers Dr. Ami Pedatzur and Dafna Kanti that was published in Issue 20 of "Panim: Faces of Art and Culture in Israel," a periodical that is published by the Teachers Union, and is edited by Rubik Rosenthal confirms this. The study examined public opinions on positions that are identified with Kahane. A few of the findings:

l 73 percent of development town residents, 87 percent of ultra-Orthodox and 76 percent of immigrants from the former Soviet Union believe the government of Israel should encourage emigration of Israeli Arabs.

l 93 percent of ultra-Orthodox, but also 39 percent of development town residents and even 25 percent of immigrants from the former Soviet Union believe "it would be better for all of us if the country were governed more by halakha than by the existing laws."

l 20 percent of the sample would consider voting for the Kach party that was founded by Meir Kahane if it were permitted to run in the elections. Some 33 percent of ultra-Orthodox said they would vote for Kahane if they could.

High levels of support for Kahanism were found among voters of the established political parties. Some 82 percent of Shas voters and 50-70 percent of voters for NRP, Torah Judaism, National Union and Yisrael Beitenu, and even 32 percent of Likud voters believed it would be best if "the state were governed by halakha and not according to the existing laws." The following represents the percentages of Israelis who last voted for other parties who would vote for a Kahanistic list if they were able to: One Israel - 3; Likud - 33; Shas - 52; Shinui - 15; NRP - 24; Yisrael Beitenu - 50, National Union - 50, Torah Judaism - 24.

Pedatzur and Kanti note that "while the studies from the mid-1980s indicated that most support for Kach came from settlers and residents of development towns, but 15 years later, support by these two sectors has declined in comparison with the support of the ideology among immigrants from the former Soviet Union, as well as in the Haredi public."

In certain respects, Kleiner is building a list that has elements in common with the status that Tommy Lapid's Shinui faction fabricated for itself, albeit in a completely different area of the political map. Just as Lapid has vowed that he would under no circumstances sit in the same government as the ultra-Orthodox, thereby fixing his position in the opposition, so too will Kleiner never sit in a government based on founding principles that compromise on parts of the Land of Israel or the establishment of a Palestinian state. On the other hand, Kleiner promises that if a narrow right-wing government is formed, Herut will not bring it down, unless a Palestinian state is actually established, or territories are in fact transferred to an alien entity.