Jewish Home Constitution - A Crossroads for Religious-Zionism?

Ongoing dispute over new party constitution reveals split opinions on the future of the religious-Zionist party.

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Ari Soffer and Yishai Karov,

Uri Ariel (R) with Naftali Bennett
Uri Ariel (R) with Naftali Bennett
Flash 90

The controversy over the Jewish Home party's new constitution continues to rage among party MKs, revealing what could be described as a crossroads for the religious-Zionist party, as well as for the religious-Zionist community in Israel as a whole.

The new constitution grants the party leader, currently Naftali Bennett, greater power to decide who is selected for the party list to stand in elections. Among other things, while most of the party list will still be decided through a vote, Bennett will be able to personally select every fifth candidate himself.

It also gives Bennett discretion to cancel for candidates of his choosing the 2.5 year membership qualification period to be on the party list, and lets him select all placements for Knesset executive positions, such as ministerial posts, with the party's central committee approving the choice and not making it as was done previously.

Both supporters and opponents alike agree on the motivation behind the move: making the party more open to voters from outside the religious-Zionist community to enable the once tiny faction to move closer towards the reigns of leadership.

It's hard to argue with the math. The Jewish Home party - formerly known as Mafdal or the National Religious Party - had until last year nearly faded into nonexistence due largely to its very narrow appeal to a particular sector of religious-Zionist voters. The same was the case for its rival, the National Union, which itself was made up of a coalition of smaller nationalist factions. Prior to last year's elections, the two parties had just a paltry 3 and 4 seats respectively and were largely considered politically irrelevant.

Under Bennett's leadership that all changed. The two rival parties finally formed a joint list under the Jewish Home party, and increased their share to 12 seats. Studies following last year's elections revealed that 5 of those seats came from secular voters, as Bennett led an election campaign which reached out to the wider Israeli public.

As a result, the party has become a major player, taking key government posts such as the Housing, Economics and Religious Affairs Ministries, among other positions.

And that success has continued. A recent poll showed that in the next elections, the Jewish Home party would become the second-largest party with 19 seats.

But the new constitution has exposed an ongoing argument within the party over how best to preserve its core values, while for the first time vying for leadership of the country.

Critics say the move risks diluting party values, but proponents of the change counter that, in fact, the party's constitution - which defines its platform and values - has remained "100% religious-Zionist". Supporters further note that the inclusion of highly-popular secular MK Ayelet Shaked in no way compromised the party's stance on any key issues, and that being more accessible to non-religious but staunchly Zionist voters enabled the party to take the aforementioned key ministries and have an unprecedented influence on government policy.

MK Moti Yogev, however, is not impressed by that argument.

Speaking to Army Radio Tuesday, Yogev claimed the vote for a new constitution was not discussed properly with party officials, and said it compromised the democratic nature of the party by not being handled in a way in which "the public and the central committee can have an influence".

He said he wasn't opposed to increasing the party's appeal per-se.

"I'm talking more about the behavior and the result of the (party) law, which will turn the party from a united party" of people with a range of opinions but who agree on the fundamental "ideology of religious-Zionism - that the Torah is the (correct) way of life and do not move one meter from their connection with the nation and the state", to a party which represents only one viewpoint - namely, that of Naftali Bennett.

Responding to the comments, Deputy Education Minister Avi Wortzman countered that those who opposed the law "want us to remain with the same old rules and system, and for us to remain with three seats."

He noted that the constitution preserved the democratic party primaries, and that "practically all of the first 20" Knesset candidates on the party list will still be decided by a vote. Wortzman further pointed out that Bennett himself can be voted out by party members if they are unhappy with his performance.

He accused opponents of the constitution of misrepresenting its actual content, and said Bennett was only trying to strengthen the party.

"This constitution was formulated by a committee consisting of a wide variety of people, and the public had an opportunity to object. More than 500 reservations were submitted and some of them called to give more power to the central branch and branches on the ground," he said.

Party remains united - for now

It is not yet clear how the row will be resolved, with Housing Minister Uri Ariel - who heads the National Union faction within the Jewish Home party - warning of a potential split in the party if the issue is not resolved.

"I support unity,” he vowed, “but I, too, like many others, see the process of the constitution, in the way it was brought before us, as a move that could gnaw away at unity and bring about a split.”

But Bennett has vowed to keep the party united.

"The first mission that we will take upon ourselves after we ratify the constitution will be speeding up the processes for unification with Tekuma [the National Union - ed.],” he elaborated. “I intend to keep on working toward the full unificiation of the party right after the constitution is approved and complete the process of unification as fast as possible.”

"We aim for the leadership,” Bennett said. "One of the tools for this is the constitution, which will be brought up for ratification Wednesday, and alongside that, the ability of the various elements within the party to stride together toward the challenges that face it in the future.”