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Shas headquarters celebrated two windfalls this week. One was that the Labor Party's leading candidate, Amram Mitzna, retracted an earlier declaration saying now that he would form a coalition with Shas, and he announced that he will join forces with Shinui. Second, the new movement, Yisrael Aheret (A Different Israel), whose platform is government without politics, picked up steam.

At first glance, there is no link between these two developments, but the political instincts of Shlomo Benizri and his Shas colleagues rarely miss the mark. As Benizri and his partners see it, the two developments are intertwined, and also linked to Shinui's anticipated growth. Though Benizri might not define these connections in sociological or historical terms, he shrewdly senses underground swells of emotion in Israeli society, and believes that these will dictate the real agenda of the elections.

Based on his analysis, Benizri responded with great satisfaction on Sunday to Mitzna's declaration, and speculated that big-money brokers - and academics - stand behind the Labor candidate's moves. The only thing Mitzna lacks is the people. And, indeed, the next day the Labor politician's reputable friends, most of them academics, published an endorsement saying that Mitzna will "restore hope." The supporters' intentions, like the candidate's intentions, are entirely laudable. This is particularly true of the desire to pull out of the territories. The problem is that with the exception of this Mitzna circle, nobody is going to address the issue of the territories in the upcoming elections.

When he announced his intention to ally with Shinui, Mitzna himself indicated that he's aware of this fact. But his declaration transformed Labor, converting it from a party which needs to recharge its ideological batteries to one tainted by the appearance of using incitement against the ultra-Orthodox as an exclusive means of solving the woes of the middle class, which is choked by the burdens of taxes, reserve duty and expensive housing. The damage cost of this alliance with Shinui, which was forged at an almost embarrassingly early stage, exceeds any anticipated utility to be accrued from it.

As things stand, as the public sees it, Mitzna's expected victory over Ben-Eliezer and Ramon symbolizes the return of the old elites, which have disdain for any display of traditionalism, and which view Shas as a primitive movement unworthy of the status of a coalition partner. The list of Mitzna's supporters and campaign contributors reinforces this perception.

But what's the connection between Mitzna and the Yisrael Aheret movement? It's no less visible. First, the list of Mitzna's contributors is virtually identical to the roster of "economic leaders," and "businessmen" who have established the new movement. These figures are not satisfied with the tremendous influence they exert on all governments, an influence which includes the ability to stifle finance ministers who have wanted (for instance) to institute taxes on windfall profits. Now, these figures want to appoint "professional" cabinet ministers. (Is there a sane democracy is which secret service heads, entertainers and businessmen are candidates to run the country? And what turned Benny Gaon, who announced in an interview with the Shas journal Yom l'yom that "Rabbi Ovadia is my Judaism," into a "professional" unfettered by political pressures?). Second, doesn't Mitzna present himself as a candidate who is not tainted by political mud? Isn't his main sales pitch to the voter his credibility and integrity?

The hard-core reality of the coming elections is to be found in this public image context. Neither the territories, nor security, nor even economics (everyone knows that governments end up doing whatever the Bank of Israel governor tells them to do) will divide the public in the elections. Voters will split into two camps: one will be the secular camp, which calls itself "enlightened," and which tends to define itself in terms of what it doesn't want ("no to religious coercion," "just no Shas").

This camp now professes to loathe politics; it is entranced by nostalgia for an imagined Israel, and dreams about a constitution and governmental system akin to America's - it is particularly enthusiastic about American-style privatization. The camp ritualistically searches for "clean" leaders who aren't tainted by politics. The Yisrael Aheret group is an extreme symptom of this camp's syndrome.

Shas, NRP, Likud and far-right voters constitute the other camp. This camp uses the political system to create what is truly a "different Israel," one which is religious, messianic, isolationist and racist. So long as the camp that wants to bypass politics defines itself in terms of revulsion from politics, and formulates platforms whose sole item is opposition to extortion wrought by settlers and Haredim, it will be easy for the other camp, which calls it "Jewish" to sow seeds of fear of Arabs and foreign workers and gentiles generally, and strengthen "Jewish" solidarity.

The coming elections are, in a sense, only a prelude to the elections that will come after them, after Shinui and Yisrael Aheret strengthen their power bases, and after the religious right grows so powerful that it swallows up Likud. The right will have a field day when the Labor Party chooses not to rebuild itself as a dovish social-democratic party open to pluralistic coalitions (this possibility is actually no fantasy - it's precisely what Haim Ramon, Yossi Beilin, Avraham Burg and others propose), and instead rides the ugly wave represented by Shinui and Yisrael Aheret and uses specious arguments, which propel it not only out the government, but also out of politics altogether.