A New Religious Zionist Party

There is a need to recreate a large party that will represent the combination of Judaism and democracy.

The National Union party is going through turbulence. Unlike what its name implies, its nine MKs are divided into four factions: Tkuma, Moledet, Ahi (the new name of Effi Eitam and Yitzhak Levy's religious Zionist movement), and Hatikva (the party's secular branch, represented by Arieh Eldad).

The storm is mostly because of Ahi's initiative to reunify the movement through a broad range of supporters, which will also determine, when the time comes, the list of party candidates for the Knesset. This initiative is opposed by many members of Tkuma. These upheavals resulted in a warning from younger constituents who threatened not to back any of the party's members in the next election unless they put their differences aside and tightened ranks.

This whole drama is a symptom of the enormous shake-up taking place in the religious Zionist camp. In addition to the shock of the Gaza disengagement, there is a huge gap between the weakness of the camp's political presence and the strong public and social presence of the camp's members - in the army, in settlements, in social volunteer activities, and in recent decades, in cultural activities and the media.

The gap is in large part the result of the paradox of religious Zionism's success. After their success in becoming part of Israeli society, many people in its ranks no longer want a special-interest party. This leads to two phenomena. One, a large segment of their electoral power is directed toward secular parties. Two, the vacuum created in the special-interest parties bolsters the influence of rabbis and their backers (who will not support secular parties). This thus positions these parties at the extreme right, from both political and religious viewpoints.

On the face of it, there is logic behind the idea that being represented by religious MKs in regular parties is sufficient. In recent years, these people have proven that in the absence of pressure from the rabbinic establishment they are indeed capable of representing the open and complex sides of religious Zionism. For example, there is Prof. Menahem Ben-Sasson, who does not hesitate to assail the positions held by the rabbinate on matters of shmita [a sabbatical year in agriculture] and conversion to Judaism. There is also MK Otniel Schneller, a settler whose position on peace is complex, and MK Rabbi Michael Melchior, who has important achievements in education, culture and child welfare.

But while they are successful, these same people are failing in the main purpose of religious Zionism: to represent and preserve the special combination of commitment to Judaism and Zionism, to society, modernity and democracy. They represent the liberal and open wing of the religious camp, but as single MKs find it difficult to be significant representatives of the conservative and stalwart aspect of the camp: the aspect that will preserve the unique identity of Israeli society in the liberal, multicultural world. For this purpose a strong party is needed that pursues this type of agenda.

Therefore, there is a need to recreate a large party that will represent the combination of Judaism and democracy, not only one of its components (as in the ultra-Orthodox and secular parties). Such a party would not put the political issue with the Palestinians at the head of its agenda, but the question of the image of Israeli society and the combination of Jewish and Zionist identities, committed to a modern life. This should be at the top of its agenda. On the political issue, it must grant its members the freedom to vote as their consciences dictate.

This party will not be identified as a special-interest party, but as a party with a theme, for which Jewish-Zionist identity will be among its top priorities. Even though it is reasonable to assume that religious Zionism is at the core of such a party, it is of prime importance to rally everyone who identifies with this message. This will allow those with knitted skullcaps who balked at the special-interest identity to find it easier to identify with this type of party.

To neutralize the influence of the rabbinic establishment, as well as that of the national religious rabbinic establishment, it is important to establish that this party's institutions and representatives will be elected in primaries as inclusive as possible (but only open to party members paying dues). Thus we will avoid a scenario in which a narrow, extremist minority shapes the political face of a broad, multifaceted and complex community.