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With All Eyes on Labor and Likud, Shinui Party Showing Huge Gains

While pundits are watching the contest between Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s scandal-rocked Likud and Haifa Mayor Amram Mitzna’s shell-shocked Labor, a subplot is developing in Israel’s upcoming election.

Shinui, a small and until now little-noticed party, led by an outspoken journalist who has never served in the government, has been quietly making sweeping gains.

Just a month before the Jan. 28 election, polls are predicting as many as 14 seats for Shinui, which has just six members in the current Knesset.

The party is led by Yosef “Tommy” Lapid, 72, a Hungarian-born Holocaust survivor who before joining the Knesset was an abrasive, screaming fixture on Israel’s political talk-show circuit.

If the pollsters are right, Shinui could be the big winner in the January election, emerging as a key player and kingmaker and in the next Israeli government.

A coalition built around Likud, Labor and Shinui could be the first all-secular government in Israel’s history, with major implications for questions of religion and state.

It also would have an overwhelming mandate for peace moves with the Palestinians or — if negotiations prove impossible — for intensifying Israel’s anti-terrorism campaign.

If Shinui becomes part of the ruling coalition, how it adapts to the responsibilities of government will determine whether it’s able to become a stable centrist force or whether — like earlier centrist groupings such as the Democratic Movement for Change, Tsomet and the Center Party — it starts disintegrating as soon as it tastes power.

In the meantime, Shinui is picking up votes everywhere. Shinui, not Labor, has been the main beneficiary of the corruption scandal in the Likud’s November primaries: More than 100,000 Likud defectors are thought to have gone to Shinui, boosting its electoral tally by three seats, and there could be more to come.

Even more importantly, Shinui has become the party of the young. It’s the “in” thing for young, middle-class, mainly Ashkenazi Israelis to support Shinui, much as they once supported the leftist Meretz.

These young people are skeptical of the left’s promises of peace and deterred by the right’s bleak vision of the future; they see Labor and Likud as passe; and they are tired of feeling exploited by fervently Orthodox Israelis who don’t work or serve in the army, but still receive government benefits.

Those feelings mesh with Shinui’s main messages: an approach to the Palestinians that takes the middle ground between left and right, and a commitment to ending perceived Orthodox privilege and religious coercion.

Shinui’s pledge to curtail the power of the fervently Orthodox also appeals to another huge reservoir of potential political support — Russian immigrants — who say that many immigrants who are not Jewish according to religious law are persecuted by the Orthodox establishment.

The attitude of the Interior Ministry — currently controlled by the fervently Orthodox Shas Party — toward Russian immigrants is absurd, Lapid says.

“Shas people, whose sons don’t serve in the army, deciding on whether someone who does” serve deserves full citizenship is the “height of immorality,” he says.

It’s far from assured that Lapid will be able to introduce his secular agenda — Labor or Likud may fear alienating the religious sector — but if he did, Israel would become a different country. There would be civil marriage and divorce; a new, more inclusive definition of who is a Jew; army service for all, including the fervently Orthodox; public transportation on the Sabbath; separation of religion and state; and better relations with Reform Jews abroad.

Shinui’s success has come at a price, however: As the party soars in the polls, it is attracting criticism from all sides.

Some critics, who charge that Shinui’s main message is negative — opposition to the Orthodox — say it represents an unhealthy phenomenon in Israeli politics.

Left wingers attack Shinui as brutally capitalist, accusing Lapid of creating a party for wealthy, secular Ashkenazi Jews that they say feeds on hatred of the fervently Orthodox and contempt for Sephardi Jews and Arabs.

Right wingers dismiss Shinui as a left-wing party because of its readiness to dismantle settlements in any peace deal with the Palestinians. Left wingers say Shinui is secretly right wing, and recall that Lapid once suggested planting bombs in Palestinian cities in retaliation for terrorism against Israelis.

Lapid unabashedly presents Shinui as the party of the middle class, the “haves,” and advocates a strong market economy on the Reaganite and Thatcherite models.

The government should give the people fishing rods, not fish, he says — in other words, not subsidies but the skills to make a living.

Lapid’s panacea for Israel’s present economic crisis? Cut income tax to a maximum of 50 percent, which could help thousands of small businesses to survive and hire new employees, thereby cutting unemployment.

Left-wing observers ask how such a party would help Russian immigrants with practical issues such as housing.

Despite the criticisms, Lapid feels his party is well-positioned. He believes Sharon will win the election, and will then have three coalition choices: a narrow coalition with the far right, which he won’t want; a coalition with Labor and the religious parties, which Labor won’t want; or a coalition based on Likud, Labor and Shinui, who together would have more than 70 seats in the 120-member Knesset, laying a base for a highly stable, secular-leaning government.

That prospect is anathema for the religious parties, especially Shas, which fears being excluded from the next government and losing public funding for its educational system.

Sounding the alarm bells, Health Minister Nissim Dahan of Shas suggested that Diaspora Jews should think twice about making aliyah — because, he said, they might be tempted to assimilate under a secular government.

Shas spokesmen explained that Dahan meant it might be easier for potential immigrants to live full Jewish lives abroad rather than in Israel. But pundits took Dahan’s hyperbole as an indication of just how worried Shas is about Shinui’s growing power.

Before Shinui, Israelis’ experience with centrist parties has not been good: They invariably have lacked ideological cohesion and have broken up.

Shinui, however, seems to have more ideological glue than its predecessors — and, in Lapid, a stronger leader.

Whether these assets will enable Shinui to become a permanent fixture in Israeli politics, or whether it turns out to be just another passing fad, remains to be seen. But unless the polls are way off, Lapid almost certainly will get his chance to make a real impact in the next government.

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