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Shinui Party Hopes to Help Shape New Israeli Government - 2003-01-23

When Israeli voters go to the polls Tuesday they are expected to put a previously small party into the position of third-largest party in the parliament. It is the party called Shinui, Hebrew for "Change." Shinui could play a key role in deciding what type of new government Israel will have.

Israel's election campaign has been characterized by corruption scandals and voter apathy, with opinion polls indicating declining support for both main parties.

Less than a week before Israel goes to the polls, many voters remain undecided because they are disaffected by political sleaze, continuing terror attacks, and a poor economy.

The story of 50-year-old Micha Kedem is typical.

Mr. Kedem has lost his job and is about to be evicted from his apartment. Relying now soley on his wife's salary as an office cleaner, the family can no longer afford the rent. To Micha Kedem, the elections are irrelevant and he is crying as he explains why.

"I have a daughter and I want to educate her so she will not be like us," he said. He says he does not care who wins the election, all he cares about is paying his rent and sending his daughter to school.

In the past, people like Micha Kedem and his wife would likely have voted for the Labor Party. Or, if they were more conservative in their views, they might have supported Ariel Sharon's Likud Party.

But this time many Israelis seeking "Change" say they may vote for Shinui, the party led by former journalist Tommy Lapid.

"First of all they are fed up with corruption in our political system, and we are [perceived] by everybody as the cleanest political party in our parliament," he said. "The other reason is that we are the only party that represents the middle class in Israel. And the third one is our fight against religious coercion and for separation of state from religion."

The Shinui Party was formed in 1974, but only had a tiny representation in the parliament until three years ago, when it jumped from one seat to six.

Now, opinion polls indicate Shinui will win 14 seats in the 120-member parliament - making it the third-largest party, after Likud and Labor.

Mr. Lapid describes his stand on negotiations with the Palestinians as "moderate."

Like Labor, Shinui is in favor of creating a Palestinian state and withdrawal from most Jewish settlements. But like Likud, Shinui opposes negotiations with Yasar Arafat. Tommy Lapid says he is seeking a more moderate negotiating partner.

But it is Shinui's tough stance on the religious parties that has attracted so many Israelis voters. Mr. Lapid explains that he plans to end the privileges that the religious parties have negotiated for their followers, during more than 50 years of holding the balance of power in the Israeli parliament.

"They are exempt from army service, 80 percent of the men do not work, but depend on the taxpayers, their institutions are receiving huge government subsidies, I object to all this," he said.

The success of Shinui has the religious parties worried. Some accuse Tommy Lapid of anti-Semitism.

One religious leader from the Shas Party said Mr. Lapid should be turned into charcoal. This prompted a furious exchange on Israeli television.

"Tommy Lapid is a holocaust survivor, and many members of his family suffered exactly that fate in concentration camps in Europe during World War II," the commentator said.

"Several members of my family including my father - were made into charcoal by the Nazis, so I do not think the rabbis should wish this to me," Mr. Lapid said. When asked about the accusation that he's anti-semitic, he replied, "This is such a tasteless and bad joke that I do not even want to relate to it."

Shinui appears to be poised to jump into the important third position in parliament - a position previously held by Shas, a party of Sephardic Jews guided by their religious leader.

As usual in Israel, it appears that no party will win enough seats to govern by itself. So both Shinui and Shas will be important players in the post-election negotiations on the formation of the new government.

Prime Minister Sharon is expected to have the first chance to form a government, and he has indicated he wants to establish a broad-based coalition. But Mr. Lapid says he will not join a government with ultra-orthodox parties.

Whoever forms Israel's next government will have a tough job forging a coalition, and Tommy Lapid and his Shinui Party are expected to be in the thick of the negotiations.