Corridors of Power / At odds - and ends?
What did Shinui contribute to Israeli society, what use did it make of its power and how long will it endure as a party?
1. Clinging to hope
This week, Shinui leader Yosef "Tommy" Lapid felt that the removal of his party from the government was an indication of Ariel Sharon's intention to disengage from the disengagement plan. His colleague, Avraham Poraz, suggested a contrasting explanation: Sharon wants to expand his government's basis by adding Labor in order to improve his ability to put the withdrawal plan into effect. But the two Shinui leaders were in agreement on one thing: The prime minister deliberately pushed their party out; their departure from the government is the inevitable consequence of moves that Sharon initiated.
Sharon did sound this week like he had made it his goal to be rid of Shinui: Two days ago, a few hours before the vote on the state budget, he went to the Knesset cafeteria to gather some reporters around him and tell them that there was no point in trying to talk with the leaders of Shinui any longer, since they'd already made up their minds to leave the coalition. And this was at a time when they were actually yearning for some sort of little gesture on Sharon's part - for example, a declaration of willingness to link the payment to United Torah Judaism to a discussion of the budgetary needs of the sectors to which Shinui appeals - that would enable them to climb down from their tree. Poraz understood Sharon's intentions even before that: In a meeting he had with him on Tuesday, he saw that the prime minister wasn't ready for a compromise proposal. Poraz grasped the clear meaning: Sharon wanted them out. Yet he still clings to one hope: that Shimon Peres will make Labor's joining the coalition contingent upon Sharon making a new overture to Shinui.
Less than two years after it became the third largest party in the Knesset and obtained a distinguished place at the cabinet table, Shinui finds itself in a state of disarray: Its dominant leader has led it into a dead-end alley and is compelling it to move to the opposition benches. Its MKs, and its sizable constituency, now have to ask themselves what Shinui's contribution was to Israeli society. What use did it make of the political power it had, and how long will it endure as a party?
2. Wasted power
Shinui is the odd realization of a virtual public power that draws it strength primarily from the popularity that Tommy Lapid gained from his appearances on the "Popolitika" television program. He is not the first person to have successfully translated high television ratings into Knesset mandates, nor is he the first to have wasted this power indiscriminately, but he is probably the first journalist who had the audacity to cross the line and transform himself from an observer to a key government minister. In the past, in the days before the founding of the state and in its early years, there was a good number of politicians who would have named journalism as their main occupation. And in those days that had a much loftier connotation than it does now; journalism was considered a very intellectual field, and politicians liked to be associated with it.
Lapid reached the Knesset in an age when journalism is characterized by the pursuit of ratings, hot-tempered "discussions" in television studios and a "grab as much as you can" style. His temperament, more than his broad knowledge and worldliness, was what suited him to the period and to the audience's expectations, and it is the main reason he was chosen to head the Shinui list - and was able to bring in 14 others to the Knesset.
The unmediated encounter with the way that national affairs are decided thrilled Lapid: The cynical journalist, who in his earlier positions scrutinized the performance of prime ministers and, by virtue of his profession, expressed criticism of them, was filled with awe when the fate of state affairs was placed in his hands. The sense of responsibility that enveloped him was so strong that he lost much of his earlier ability to judge things from a cool distance without losing his head. Lapid became Ariel Sharon's follower and developed a surprisingly strong self-righteous streak, compared to his previous image as a person with a healthy sense of humor and the ability to cast a sober eye on reality.
In his position as deputy prime minister, justice minister and member of the security cabinet, Lapid gave his support to all of Sharon's moves, even the most aggressive ones, and came up with rhetoric to justify the Israel Defense Forces' conduct in the territories even when it aroused anger and criticism among Shinui voters. Only very infrequently did he offer a dissenting view (for example, after the demolitions of houses in Rafah, when he commented that the picture of the old Palestinian woman rummaging through the rubble reminded him of his grandmother). He was the one who said, after Abu Mazen's resignation, that "the criminal in this story is Arafat, and we may have to reconsider his fate"; he is the one who vociferously berated two Shinui MKs (Eti Livni and Ilan Leibowitz) for expressing support for the Geneva Accords; and he was the one who proclaimed upon Arafat's death that the Temple Mount is the burial place of Jewish kings and not of Arab terrorists. It's ironic that his tenure in the government is coming to an end just as he is promoting a bill that would impose restrictions on the media (concerning the revelation of names of criminal suspects).
3. A pitiful record
Shinui will have to face its voters empty-handed. Since it seized a good position in the center of the political spectrum, nothing has changed for the public in whose name it purports to speak. It failed in its ambition to legalize civil marriage, and its ministers also chose on purpose not to support the bill on this issue that was submitted to the Knesset in the beginning of the year. It did not manage to change the status of yeshiva students at all and even agreed, in principle, to serve in a government together with United Torah Judaism. When its leaders are asked to describe their contribution to public life in the past two years, they cite minor accomplishments: the dismantling of the religious affairs ministry, the equalizing of child allowances (with the annulment of preferences for families with many children), a reduction in the budgets allocated to the ultra-Orthodox, the non-enforcement of municipal laws prohibiting the sale of non-Passover foods on that holiday. When pressed to cite more substantial achievements, the party's leaders add: "We changed the atmosphere in the country; because Sharon preferred us to Shas as a coalition partner, his government is more accepted by the public that doesn't go to Beitar Jerusalem games."
Shinui's being kicked out doesn't necessarily mean that its political fate is sealed. Despite its pitiful record of achievements, despite the inclusion of someone like Yosef Paritzky in its ranks, despite the fact that hardly any of its MKs has left a mark on the Knesset, in the future - it could still be the political address for the secular middle class. Since Shinui (which means "change") is at base a mood party, in the next elections it could also be the repository of hopes for those voters who are seeking a change.