A Fierce Fight on the Sidelines

On the sidelines of the elections playing field, another game is under way - the game between Shas, the ultra-Orthodox Sephardi Torah Guardians, and Shinui, the rabidly anticlerical party.

The true game of the elections seems to be taking place on the playing fields of the campaign and in the media. The majority of the teams are represented in those spheres and the subjects that are of most interest to them are security and political corruption. But on the sidelines of the playing field another game is under way, which is no less interesting and perhaps even more so - the game between Shas, the ultra-Orthodox Sephardi Torah Guardians, and Shinui, the rabidly anticlerical party. Deep rivalry and a gulf of hatred separate the fans of these two teams. If until now Shinui was ahead by 14-7 - the number of Knesset seats each party is expected to obtain, according to the public opinion polls - as of the weekend Shas had cut the gap to 14-10.

The constituencies of the two parties have agendas that include issues that do not seem to be part of the national agenda: whether the country's character will be Jewish or democratic, Western or Mediterranean; whether the dominant way of life will be that symbolized by Tel Aviv or that of Netivot and the Har Nof neighborhood of Jerusalem; whether we will hate the gentiles who live among us or incorporate them into the society; whether the voters of Shinui will continue to underwrite the way of life of Shas voters, and whether Shas's elected representatives will continue to dictate the way of life of Shinui voters.

The two parties direct a great deal of mutual arrogance at each other, and their voters are supposedly motivated by self-identity and loathing. There is in fact a core of truth in this description, though another allegation that is directed at this side game - that only one issue is at stake: religion and state - is unfounded. The two parties are clashing over many of the genuinely important issues for the future of the state: Bagatz or Badatz (referring to the highest courts of the secular and ultra-Orthodox communities, respectively), constitution or Torah, the draft or evasion, equality of women or women's oppression. One can only wonder why, when so many voters are making their order of priorities clear, this agenda has yet to succeed in penetrating the main national playing field.

In the previous elections, too, the breakthrough by Shinui played no small part in bringing about the success of Shas, though at that time the Aryeh Deri case - the trial and conviction of Shas's chairman - was the major factor that brought Shas 17 seats. But the Shinui of 2003 is not the same party that made its first run for the Knesset in 1999. From the point of view of the Shas constituency, Shinui was the symbol of the war against religion, which is a war between the forces of good and the forces of evil, a war of Gog and Magog, of Christ and anti-Christ, so to speak.

In the current elections, the fatherly image of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon played a major part in the campaign, until the corruption scandal eroded it. But the two players on the sidelines have their own father - or grandfather - figures. There is a great deal of resemblance between Shinui's Yosef (Tommy) Lapid and Shas's Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the party's spiritual mentor. Both are very likable and are deeply establishment figures. Both believe devoutly in their way of life and are convinced that it should be dominant in the Jewish state. And both have a never-ending record of blunt, uninhibited, violent pronouncements.

It is not surprising that both parties are behaving as though these were personal elections, as though they have only leaders without a list of candidates. Shas is simply hiding its Knesset list, which looks so bland without Deri. And Shinui is also not exactly playing up the fact that behind Lapid stands an anonymous battery of lawyers.

Shas this week was grateful to the beneficent Master of the Universe for sending them the upgraded Shinui party and "Super Tommy," and thus boosting their decline in the polls. One of the questions now is whether Shas's recovery will renew the momentum of Shinui and make the first 15 to 20 places on list realistic. No less interesting is the question of the point at which the support for Shas will peak.

It is impossible to ignore the fact that it was only in the mass rally at Yad Eliahu Stadium in Tel Aviv last Tuesday that Shas effectively launched its election campaign - and it did so with resounding success. The party has yet to begin distributing the campaign video, which has been provisionally dubbed "J'Accuse II" - the first one having referred to Aryeh Deri's conviction. Like its predecessor, the second cassette in the series is also likely to generate great hatred. This time the enemies will be the Ashkenazi elites and the non-Jewish new immigrants.

Shas's experience shows that it makes gains in the polls as election day draws closer and that the polls themselves tend to underestimate the party's true electoral strength. Now that Shas has reached 10 seats in almost all the polls, the party's leaders have set 12 seats as the goal. They are so far not daring to dream of more than that. The working assumption is that about five of the 17 seats the party won in 1999 were due solely to the Deri affair. The supporters of Deri did Shas chairman and Interior Minister Eli Yishai a tremendous favor by constantly predicting that Shas would crash to six or seven seats. Now it is clear to everyone that even if Shas declines to 12 seats that will still be a considerable achievement; anything higher will be considered a prodigious success.

Contrary to the Labor Party, which is very much concerned that the national agenda will shift again to chemical warfare and the smallpox threat, Shas is ready for the war in the Gulf. Rabbi Yosef has written a special prayer against ABC (atomic-biological-chemical) warfare by Iraq, and a kit containing the text of the prayer is being distributed to Shas supporters. Existential fears and the intensification of mystical feelings will only help the party, Shas leaders say.