Israel turmoil fuels power of small party

Secular Shinui targets middle class, could be key to a new ruling coalition

January 17, 2003|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

GANEI TIKVA, Israel - Yossef "Tommy" Lapid thrusts his hands into his deep pockets, surveys the auditorium filled with supporters and smiles. This is his kind of audience - smartly dressed and overwhelmingly secular.

He is a broadcast journalist turned politician who leads the once marginal Shinui party, which has suddenly soared in popularity to become a potential powerbroker in Israel's Jan. 28 parliamentary elections.

Shinui, which means "change" in Hebrew, has made some of its gains in polls thanks to defectors from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Likud party, the target of corruption charges.

But it is Lapid's repeated attacks on the figures he calls religious tyrants that have made him a new force in Israeli politics.

"If we want to be a society that is enlightened and liberal, if we want to be like Holland, we cannot destroy the middle class," he told an excited audience in Ganei Tikva this week.

"We are against the ultra-Orthodox controlling the state and especially its coffers. ... Reform and save society."

Lapid's core message that Israel's religious parties have stunted the nation's growth as a Western democracy seems to resonate. Lapid, 71, unabashedly targets a constituency he feels has been ignored because they are not poor and have largely been unaffected by Palestinian suicide bombings and other violence.

These are the people who live in the coastal suburbs between Tel Aviv and Haifa and enjoy what are considered luxuries in a hard-pressed economy: They have two cars in their driveways, dine out and attend the theater.

"Lapid had the right answers to the segment of the population he is aiming for," said Arik Sa'ar, 49, an insurance agent who came to hear the speech in Ganei Tikva. "I like the aggressive, brutal things he said about the Orthodox."

Sa'ar, who lives in Beit Arieh, a Jewish settlement in the West Bank, likes Sharon but said, "I feel it is hard to vote for his party because of the corruption issues."

Critics refer to Shinui as the anti-religious party, and Lapid repeatedly fends off accusations that he is a racist. He has made comments deemed insensitive to women, Arabs and Jews. The magazine Jerusalem Report dubbed him an articulate Archie Bunker.

Lapid's father died in a Nazi concentration camp, and he and his mother survived in the Jewish ghetto of Budapest before immigrating to Israel in 1948, the year of its founding. His unfavorable views of the ultra-Orthodox are so strong that Lapid takes pains at public appearances to tell people, "I don't hate Jews."

His views used to be easily dismissed. But polls now show that his Shinui Party has overtaken the ultra-Orthodox party Shas to claim a solid third place behind the expected winner, Likud, and the center-left Labor party, led by Amram Mitzna.

Israelis vote for parties, not candidates, and seats in parliament are allocated on a proportional system. If the numbers hold, Shinui would more than double the six seats it has now, potentially giving it a crucial role in determining the composition of a governing coalition.

Mitzna said this week that Labor would not join Likud. And Lapid said Shinui would never join a government with a religious party. That would force Likud to form a narrow right-wing coalition that might be liable to early collapse. That, in turn, puts Lapid in the position of being able to help either Labor or Likud and joining the government.

Much of Shinui's party platform consists of criticizing others rather than offering solutions itself, but that too seems attractive to voters. As for the Palestinian crisis, Lapid wants neither an all-our war as advocated by the far right nor a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza as Mitzna proposes.

Shinui offers a middle road between what Lapid calls "the crushing dreams of the right and the defeatist position of the left." Negotiate, but not with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, and evacuate only the most isolated settlements, he says.

Lapid also highlights the scandal that has rocked the Likud party, allegations that Sharon accepted a questionable $1.5 million loan from a South African businessman to cover illegal campaign contributions in 1999. "We are honest," Lapid told supporters at Ganei Tikva. "Our hands are clean."

But perhaps the biggest fan base comes from Lapid's stance against the ultra-Orthodox, for he has tapped a deep-rooted distrust between the secular and religious in Israel. Many secular Israelis criticize the exemptions from military service given to the ultra-Orthodox.

Lapid, who gained notoriety in the 1990s by appearing on the raucous television talk show, Popolitika, wants public transportation to run on the Jewish Sabbath, has called the Middle East backward and, in an unsubtle dig at the origins of many of the ultra-Orthodox, warned that Israel is in danger of becoming an Eastern European or North African ghetto.

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