- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 25, 2003

TEL AVIV An Israeli party that advocates secularism expects to emerge from elections Tuesday with the clout to start making good on promises to remake politics by keeping religious parties out of government.
The re-election of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of the Likud Party is a virtual lock, but opinion polls suggest the other winner will be the Shinui Party. The upstart party is poised to nearly triple its power in Israel's parliament, the Knesset.
That sort of windfall would elevate Shinui above the field of about a dozen small parliamentary factions to become the largest political party behind Labor and Likud, making it a major player in the next Knesset.
"We all know the Labor Party has lost [next weeks] elections," said Yosef "Tommy" Lapid, the cantankerous 71-year-old former newspaper columnist who leads Shinui, during one debate. "We are now fighting over what type of government will be formed after the elections."
Mr. Lapid, whom detractors call Israel's Archie Bunker, hopes to benefit from a religious-secular culture war that is simmering just below the surface of the regular violence in the Jewish state.
Shinui could wind up just one short of Labor's 18 seats, according to one projection based on the latest polls.
The centrist party says it wants to be the glue binding another Labor-Likud "unity" coalition, a partnership popular during the past two years for bringing doves and hawks into the same government to grapple with the Palestinian uprising.
Shinui aims to squeeze out ultra-Orthodox parties, such as Shas, the current No. 3 party, whose campaign features pictures of a rabbi as spiritual leader. Shinui, Hebrew for "change," calls for Israel's first coalition whose raison d'etre is the separation of religion from government.
"The chance is today," Shinui parliament member Yossi Paritsky told a gathering of voters in Jerusalem.
"We can have a national-unity government, which is secular, liberal, modern, pushing this country to the 21st century … and like good democracies in Western Europe or the United States of America. Or we can be a theocracy, going downhill toward a Third World country."
To be sure, Shinui isn't proposing an American-style separation of church and state for Israel. The party doesn't plan to tamper with the public holidays that follow the Jewish calendar. But it wants to undo so-called "coercive" regulations, including strict limits on Sabbath-day activities and a ban on civil marriages.
The party unexpectedly won six seats in the 120-member Knesset in 1999. Candidates tapped into anger over preferential treatment for students enrolled in yeshiva religious seminaries, who get draft exemptions and state funding so they don't have to work.
This year, Shinui chipped away at support for nearly every other major party by combining the call for a "secular national-unity government" with free-market economic policies, such as lowering taxes.
The self-styled party of the Israeli middle class describes itself in its campaign platform as "the voice of the productive, creative and cultured layer of Israeli society."
It also got a major boost from campaign-corruption scandals that tainted Mr. Sharon's Likud Party earlier this month. The outrage bolstered Shinui, selling itself as a "clean" party, to a peak of 17 seats in opinion polls.
And in a country frustrated after two years of violence that shows no signs of abating, Shinui offers a new option to voters who are tired of pitches from traditional left- and right-wing ideologues.
"People are desperate. They don't believe in miracles, as in the past," said Avraham Diskin, a professor of political science at Jerusalem's Hebrew University. "They don't know what the answer is. They're looking for new types of magicians like Tommy Lapid."
Like the prime minister, the party opposes negotiations with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat or a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank or Gaza Strip. But the Shinui platform supports the evacuation of settlements and suggests the need for a compromise on Jerusalem, reflecting two positions backed by Labor.
In an effort to throw cold water on Shinui's vision of a secular unity government, Labor Party leader Amram Mitzna said he was opposed to rejoining a Sharon-led government. For Mr. Lapid to fulfill his promise, he needs a putsch to break out in Labor.
Mr. Lapid came to national prominence in the mid-1990s as a sharp-tongued panelist on a weekly political talk show that routinely deteriorated into a shouting match between Mr. Lapid and an ultra-Orthodox panelist. The Holocaust survivor has been vilified as an anti-Semite by the religious for painting the ultra-Orthodox as freeloaders.
Distaste for Mr. Lapid isn't limited to the religious.
"How soon after the elections will we in Shinui be able to rid ourselves of this racist, elitist buffoon?" a Shinui supporter asked at a party forum.

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