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Benny Elon is a leader of a right-wing faction that appears likely to gain a few seats for its small bloc in Israel’s parliamentary election next week.
Benny Elon is a leader of a right-wing faction that appears likely to gain a few seats for its small bloc in Israel’s parliamentary election next week. (Anne Barnard/ Globe Staff)
CAMPAIGN PORTRAITS

At the front of Israel's culture war

Rabbi-politician says vote is about Jewish character

First in a series of profiles of Israelis as they prepare for a parliamentary election on March 28.

JERUSALEM -- As rabbi-turned-politician Benny Elon moved through the crowd at the Hyatt Hotel, fans clustered around him with an air of desperation, asking him how to stop what they viewed as a coming catastrophe -- the proposed Israeli pullout from dozens of West Bank settlements.

Elon, a leader of a right-wing faction that appears likely to gain a few seats for its small bloc in Israel's parliamentary election next week, reassured one woman, ''I want to stop it," then laid a benedictory hand on the cheek of an agitated young man in a yarmulke: ''Call me. We'll talk."

The front-running, centrist Kadima party markets the March 28 election as a referendum on its plans for a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from parts of the West Bank, and believes its victory is a shoo-in. But to Elon, the vote is a pivotal battle in an intensifying culture war over Israel's Jewish character -- a longer struggle he believes the right wing will win.

In the context of that culture war, Elon argues, Kadima's West Bank pullout plan is less an effort to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict than an attempt by Israel's secular elite to deal a death blow to the religious right and cement its dominance over the country.

''It's not for peace, not for security, it's simply an attempt to determine who is the landlord and who is the tenant," Elon declared Monday at a conference at the Hyatt, not far from the spot where one of his early political partners, right-wing tourism minister Rehavam Zeevi, was gunned down by Palestinian militants in 2001.

Religious right-wing voters are groping for a new rallying point after they suffered a rude awakening last year, abandoned first by their longtime champion, when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon pulled out of the Gaza Strip and dashed their dream of a Greater Israel; and then by their country, when most Israelis remained pointedly unmoved by their protests. Elon, 51, offers himself as a guide.

In his view of Israel's culture clash, which he compares to the ''red-blue" divide in the United States, Elon feels that his enemies value Jewishness less than ''Israeli culture" -- ''a superficial culture" centered in coastal Tel Aviv with its classical music concerts and Mediterranean fusion food. He laments that they are willing to give up lands he views as a Biblical legacy in order to protect the existing state.

His allies, he says, believe that Israel's legitimacy flows solely from its Jewishness, and will wither if severed from such ancient Jewish sites as Hebron and Shiloh, in the mountains of the West Bank -- part of the land captured by Israel from Jordan and Egypt in the 1967 war, where Palestinians hope to build their own state.

To Elon, secular Israelis who oppose the settlements built on the occupied territory have forgotten their identity and will lead Israel to its downfall.

''To hate Hebron is to hate the Cave of the Patriarchs," he told the conference, referring to the Jewish settlements in the heart of the West Bank city and the nearby tombs of Abraham, Sarah, and other figures revered by Jews and Muslims as common ancestors.

Some of Elon's ideas have been called racist or anti-Arab by his opponents. His master plan, which he dubs ''The Right Road to Peace," calls for Palestinians to become citizens of Jordan rather than have their own state, and for moving some Palestinians and Israeli Arabs into Jordan.

In person, Elon downplays those strategies, focusing on broad themes he believes can appeal to all Israelis, and admonishing fellow right-wingers that their biggest mistake has been their failure to reach out to the broader Israeli public.

The Israeli right has been reeling since Sharon abandoned the right-wing Likud to form Kadima, before suffering a stroke in January that left him incapacitated. Under Sharon, Likud held 40 seats in the 120-member parliament, but now polls suggest it could win fewer than 20.

The right wing has often played kingmaker in Israeli politics, but will lose that role if it can't win back some of the center-right voters attracted to Kadima. To that end, Elon merged his National Union, which has five seats in the outgoing parliament, with the National Religious Party, which has four. Elon, who was tourism minister in Sharon's government until he was fired for his opposition to the Gaza pullout, began urging followers not to attack Likud from the right but to join it in a broad right-leaning bloc.

He also advises allies to tell centrist Israelis less about settlers' own perceived grievances and more about how Israel's fate rises or falls with the settlers.

Elon, who has long courted the support of US evangelicals, tears a page from the playbook of the US cultural wars.

''The majority of the people of Israel have a deep emotional connection to tradition," he said in an interview. ''We [speak] that language, more than the extreme left and liberals." He argues that Israel's largely secular founding generation is destroying Israel rather than handing it to a new generation that it can't control because they fear ''it might become an Orthodox state -- a too-Jewish state."

Here's his pitch to what he says is Israel's traditionalist center: ''If you want to be sure that your children will know the Shmei Israel" -- the most primal of Jewish prayers -- then vote right-wing and insist on a Biblical right to the West Bank.

''Our language," he said, ''is Bible-ish."

Benny Elon

Age: 51

Political party: National Union

Education: yeshiva studies at Merkaz Harav, Jerusalem, and Kolel Ha-Idra in the Golan Heights; ordained a rabbi in 1978

Professional: rabbi and teacher; founder and dean of Beit Orot Talmudic College in Jerusalem; member of Knesset since 1996

Family: married with six children

Quote: ''The majority of the people of Israel have a deep emotional connection to tradition."

SOURCE: The Knesset

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