Religious Zionist political chief seeks to build bridges

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Of all the Israelis forced to soul-search since Yitzhak Rabin's assassination, Zevulun Hammer occupies a spot near the top of the list.

Hammer, a Knesset member since 1969 and head of the National Religious Party, politically represents the religious Zionist movement blamed by many for producing such extremists as confessed assassin Yigal Amir.

Instead of retreating in defense, however, Hammer has been pushing his right-wing party to reach out — negotiating to join the Labor Party coalition, publicly shunning extremism, accepting the Oslo II Accords, and reassessing its educational system.

"We only want to make peace among all the parts of the society that were torn. We want to build this bridge again," Hammer said during an interview in San Francisco while attending the International Jewish Medical Ethics Conference sponsored by the Hebrew Academy last month. He spoke before the recent barrage of suicide bombings in Israel.

Clean-shaven with a navy knit kippah and a cocoa-colored corduroy jacket, Hammer's appearance epitomizes his party's longstanding philosophy: observing Jewish law without spurning the modern world; building Israel in the spirit of Torah.

The National Religious Party, which holds six of the Knesset's 120 seats, is the most mainstream of Israel's three Orthodox political parties. And Hammer, who served as cabinet minister of education, religion and social welfare from the mid-1970s until the early 1990s, is considered centrist within his party.

But the religious Zionist movement, which educates tens of thousands of Israeli youth through Orthodox day schools, yeshivot and Amir's alma mater Bar-Ilan University, has been accused of ignoring or even producing extremist rhetoric that preceded the Nov. 4 assassination.

Hammer won't allow his movement to take all or even most of the blame for Amir's action.

"I think something was wrong with his mind, some madness," Hammer said.

Still, this 59-year-old politician acknowledges Amir's environment and education must have contributed somehow to his actions. As a result, Hammer said, reforms are already in the works.

"Religious education is very ideological. People take the ideas very seriously," he said. "We have to educate people to restrain and to know there are limits." The No.1 limit is murder, he said.

Following close behind, Hammer added, is teaching the need for tolerance and debate. "They can't dictate their ideas by force," Hammer said.

Although Hammer himself fiercely criticized the peace process over the past few years, The Jerusalem Post also quoted him several times as condemning protesters who labeled Rabin a "murderer" and "traitor."

Today, Hammer asserts, the National Religious Party has no room for extremists.

"We shall not give them any umbrella," he said. "Now we are more careful."

To prove its point, the National Religious Party went so far as to sign a statement after the assassination that reaffirmed its commitment to the basic tenets of democratic rule and civil discourse. The party promised to accept the decisions of the Knesset majority and "not to exaggerate in style of speaking," Hammer said.

The shift in outward behavior doesn't mean that Hammer has changed his politics, though.

He opposes a Palestinian state and supports sovereignty for the settlements in the West Bank. He cannot imagine splitting Jerusalem and doesn't trust Palestinian Council President Yasser Arafat.

Nevertheless, Hammer doesn't want Israel to renege on the Oslo II Accords.

"No one in Israel, not Likud, really dreams or thinks about a new war in order to take the territories," he said. "Let's speak about the territories that were not given."

The national elections, set for May 29, will determine who shapes Israel's stance in the final status talks with the Palestinians.

Hammer couldn't predict who will win. If incumbent Shimon Peres and Labor Party prevail, however, Hammer said his party would consider joining the Labor coalition.

Soon after the assassination, negotiations for just such a move were under way. But Meretz, Labor's left-wing partner, threatened to drop out of the coalition if the talks continued and succeeded in stopping them.

After the elections, Meretz might not have as much bargaining power. The party is expected to lose several of its 12 Knesset seats. At the same time, Hammer predicts that NRP will gain two to four seats.

He estimates that the NRP's potential pool of voters — centrist Orthodox Jews — make up nearly 25 percent of the population, though the party currently holds only 5 percent of the Knesset's seats.

"Our people felt they didn't need anymore a religious party. Because they were so strong, so involved in life, they didn't need any unique gathering in a party," Hammer said.

After the assassination, however, many religious Israelis were treated as potential Yigal Amirs. Politicians threatened to shut the government-run religious schools and the military yeshivah program that lets soldiers study and serve their country.

And that backlash, ironically, may reinvigorate the NRP.

"What happened after the assassination — these people realized they aren't so strong as they thought they were," Hammer said. "They felt besieged…They understand they have to come together."