Just minutes after NRP leader Zevulun Orlev intimated to an Army Radio interviewer that Rabbi Elon was likely to accept the offer, the same station released its "scoop" that the rabbi had in fact turned it down.
The National Union (NU) and National Religious Party (NRP) have been conducting talks for the past several weeks on the option of running on a joint list in the upcoming elections. Despite the widespread support for a merger among both their publics, and despite calls for a merger by rabbis across the religious-Zionist political spectrum, the talks have not succeeded. The main issue of contention is the question of who will head the list.
Both parties say their top man - Benny Elon of the NU (pictured, left) and Zevulun Orlev of the NRP (right) - should head the list. Asi Talmon, aide to MK Tzvi Hendel (NU), has said in the past, "Look, it was clear all along that Benny Elon would head the list... the fact is that many National Union voters simply will not vote for this joint list if Orlev heads it. He has spoken in favor of Avigdor Lieberman's plan [of trading parts of Arab-populated Israel for parts of Judea and Samaria], he wants to join a future government at almost any cost, he is associated with the uprooting of Jewish communities [because the NRP remained in the Sharon government until November 2004]. In addition, we ran a sharp campaign against him demanding that he leave the government. For all these reasons, he simply cannot lead our joint list, and the NRP knows this."
National Union officials also say that in addition to currently having six MKs compared to the NRP's four, polls show far greater support for the NU than the NRP.
Orlev, on the other hand, says that an objective survey should be held to see who would garner more support for the joint list. He says that of the NU's six MKs, two - Effie Eitam and Yitzchak Levy - were elected on the NRP list, but later dropped out and joined the National Union.
Speaking on Army Radio this morning, Orlev said that he had spoken to Rabbi Moti Elon - Benny Elon's younger brother - earlier this week. Orlev explained that Rabbi Elon "represents exactly the type of new agenda that we feel should be presented to the Israeli public - education, social welfare, and the Jewish character of the State, together with a consistent fight for the Land of Israel."
MK Tzvi Hendel (National Union) has said that members of his party and leading rabbis have been in contact with Rabbi Elon for two weeks, and that the matter "needs to be dealt with slowly."
Asked if he feels that Rabbi Elon will accept the offer, Orlev said that the rabbi had not decided yet, but that he - Orlev - felt he was close to acceptance.
Five minutes later, Army Radio correspondent Amit Segal announced dramatically that Rabbi Elon had turned down the offer. Segal intimated that part of the reason was because of Orlev's early publication and credit-taking: "Rabbi Elon is a rabbi, not a politician, and here he got a taste of politicking on his back, and it looks like he was scared off."
MK Hendel, as well, gently blamed Orlev for leaking the news too early.
Orlev himself said later that he had coordinated his announcement with Rabbi Elon himself.
Asked if Orlev is an obstacle to unity, MK Gila Finkelstein (NRP) said, "I don't think so. He was elected democratically, in a secret ballot, to head the party." Asked if she and her colleagues might tell Orlev that it was time to step aside and allow Benny Elon to head the list, she said she would speak to her colleagues and ask for an urgent meeting on the entire matter today.
MK Nissan Slomiansky (NRP) said, "First of all, check with Orlev and see what he says. Secondly, I'm no longer sure that everyone wants unification - and it could be more on the other side than on the NRP side... The National Union keeps blaming it on Orlev, but they keep piling up obstacles themselves..."
Both parties say that there are voters who will not vote for a joint list headed by the other party.