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Profile: Campaign of Shinui Party Leader Tommy Lapid

Morning Edition: January 9, 2003

Israel Election


Three weeks before Israel's elections, a small centrist party looks set to become a major player in the parliament, or Knesset, the party called Shinui or Change. Shinui is led by a plain-speaking former journalist named Tommy Lapid who has based his campaign primarily on opposition to the political power of Israel's ultra-Orthodox Jews. NPR's Linda Gradstein reports.


On Tommy Lapid's desk is a puppet dressed in a long black cloak and hat, and with the dangling earlocks worn by the ultra-Orthodox. When you press a button, the doll's fist pops out and punches you in the face. `Just like the ultra-Orthodox,' Lapid comments wryly. The doll fits the image many Israelis have of the ultra-Orthodox as obnoxious bullies who force religious observance on an entire public. Although only about 10 percent of the population, the ultra-Orthodox have traditionally been the swing vote that makes or breaks governing coalitions in Israel. As such, they've amassed considerable power, power they have used to enact laws that force the majority of non-religious Israelis to bend to their will. For example, the ultra-Orthodox have outlawed public transportation on the Sabbath in most cities and have given the rabbis sole control over marriage and divorce. The ultra-Orthodox also ensure large state subsidies for their religious schools and seminaries, as well as government grants for large families. Even more galling to secular Israelis, most ultra-Orthodox youth are granted automatic deferments from the army in a country where virtually everyone else serves. Political analysts say Lapid is capitalizing on the growing resentment many Israelis feel toward the ultra-Orthodox.

Mr. TOMMY LAPID (Shinui Party): Forget about the fact that they are religious. Just think of them as a group of people who say we will not participate in the defense of this country. We will not participate in the social life of this country. We will not work. We are not paying taxes. You have to defend us and you have to look after our existence. This is unacceptable.

GRADSTEIN: Not surprisingly, Lapid, a Holocaust survivor, has incurred the wrath of many in the ultra-Orthodox community. Lapid became popular in Israel for his appearances on a television talk show called "Popolitika." In a program somewhere between "Crossfire" and "Jerry Springer," Lapid made his mark by yelling louder and being more insulting than his fellow panelists.

Shmuel Sandler, professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University, says Lapid's tirades reflect the frustrations felt by many Israelis.

Professor SHMUEL SANDLER (Political Science, Bar-Ilan University): He speaks to the stomach of the people, not to their brain. He brings out the very basic anger of people.

GRADSTEIN: Uri Dromi of the Israel Democracy Institute says Shinui's rapid rise shows many Israelis have lost faith in the political system.

Mr. URI DROMI (Israel Democracy Institute): People are disillusioned with the big parties. I don't think they see any salvation coming from either Likud or Labor and therefore, having decided to vote, they go to the other authority which is kind of a protest voting.

GRADSTEIN: Pollsters say the 71-year-old Lapid could become the kingmaker in Israel's new parliament. Neither of the larger parties, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Likud or the opposition Labor, is expected to win close to the 61 seats needed for a majority in the Knesset. If the polls prove correct, Shinui could replace the ultra-Orthodox Shas party as the swing vote in any new governing coalition. That has the ultra-Orthodox worried. Shas currently holds 17 seats in parliament, but polls say it will have only eight or nine after the election. Shas seems willing to do almost anything to prove the polls wrong. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the party's leader, promises that anyone who votes Shas will be guaranteed a place in heaven. In Shas' campaign commercials, the rabbi plays on the fears of many Israelis.


Rabbi OVADIA YOSEF: (Foreign language spoken)

GRADSTEIN: `Israel is in danger,' Yosef warns. `Its defense is dependent on religion. If we do things for God,' he says, `then God will help us.' But at least based on the polls, many Israelis are choosing Tommy Lapid and Shinui over trust in the eternal. Linda Gradstein, NPR News, Jerusalem.

EDWARDS: The time is 29 minutes past the hour.

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