In less than three months time the Jewish Home Party, formerly known as the National Religious Party (NRP), will be holding its first ever internal primaries. Although for most political parties the holding of primaries is not a newsworthy event, in the case of the Jewish Home Party this is quite a story.
Although for many years after its inception the NRP was consistently a ten to fifteen member party, ever since the end of the 9th Knesset in 1981 the strength of the party has been drastically reduced. With the brief exception of the 14th Knesset of 1996 when the party managed to climb back over the ten member threshold, for years the party hovered between four to six members before finally crashing down to its current level of three.
Some of the reason for the loss of power was due to the endless splintering in the national camp throughout the years as internal disputes regarding direction and vision frequently led to the creation of new parties. Similarly, for some on the left the party was seen as focusing too much on communities in Judea-Samaria-Gaza while to some on the right the party was seen as being too wishy-washy and unwilling to take a forceful stand. As a result the party witnessed an erosion of power as voters from both sides slowly drifted away.
Even the recruitment ten years ago of Effie Eitam and all the excitement that his name and presence generated couldn’t reverse the trend. Similarly, the various mergers or attempted mergers in recent years with the National Union have failed to stop the bleeding.
The result of this process is that some members of the national camp have turned to the Likud, some to the National Union and yet others to Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu.
Thus there exists today the absurd situation where on the one hand the national religious community excels and even leads in some key areas of the country – the military and hi-tech to name just a few – while in the political realm their power is diffused and hence their collective influence is nearly non-existent.
Only with both an understanding of this background and with the knowledge that unless there is a radical change the Jewish Home Party might simply disappear from the political map in the coming years, can one truly appreciate the events surrounding the upcoming party elections.
For starters, while two of the candidates for the party leadership, Zevulun Orlev and Daniel Hershkowitz, are rightly or wrongly associated with the old guard that has made the party nearly irrelevant, the third candidate, 40-year-old Naftali Bennett, is creating much excitement and anticipation. The former chief of staff of Netanyahu prior to the 2009 elections, Bennett is trying to move the party away from its traditional role of being a small sector-related party that is usually satisfied with only trying to influence the larger ruling parties and instead transform it into a significantly broader and larger party that is finally involved in leading.
Moreover, Bennett’s approach and the high hopes that are being placed on him has convinced a wide range of candidates – such as Ayelet Shaked, the secular co-founder of the MyIsrael national movement, Moti Yogev, the former Secretary General of Bnei Akiva and Dr Yehuda David, the Israeli physician who fought for the truth in the Mohammed al-Dura story – to enter the elections for the party list which are being held one week after the elections for the party leader.
Nevertheless, while Bennett’s race for the leadership and his plan to open up the party to the wider national camp in order to include traditional and secular members side by side with religious ones has earned him the support of many, including perhaps most importantly that of current Jewish Home Party member of Knesset Uri Orbach, his two opponents are still confident that they can defeat their relatively young rival.
Thus as the race to sign up members to the party comes to a close on September 9, the three candidates for the party leadership are preparing for the final push to the November 6 elections. The results of that day will probably mean the continued irrelevance of a once proud party or a breath of fresh air and hope for a frustrated and splintered national camp.