Rabbi Yosef and 'Rabbi' Lapid

Instead of a varied, dappled faction, with ideological fomentation and an open exchange of ideas, Shinui is becoming more and more like a Hasidic court, subject to the absolute authority of its rebbe.

Knesset members Ilan Leibowitz and Eti Livni of Shinui were, in recent months, part of the public support group that Yossi Beilin set up for the peace initiative he led with Yasser Abed Rabbo. The two showed interest in the discussed proposals and even identified with them. But, at the last moment, before the final meeting, they got cold feet. Their party leader, Yosef Lapid, seething with fury, lambasted the agreement proposal and scared them off.

Asked to explain their behavior, Leibowitz said he had made it clear from the start that he would not sign the agreement and that he had reservations about its phrasing. Livni admitted she supports Beilin's initiative, but said she decided to turn away from it because of Lapid's demand and the need "to preserve Shinui's unity." Lapid volunteered a enlightening comment of his own: "There is no controversy in Shinui about the Geneva matter. We are all against it ... Shinui's strength lies in the 15 votes of its MKs and in its internal discipline."

The submissiveness of Livni and Leibowitz is understandable. Like the rest of Shinui's faction, they owe Lapid their Knesset membership. Until February this year, they were mostly anonymous. Lapid, due to the popularity he accumulated on television shows and his talent in tracing the public opinion niche that was crying out for a secular-bourgeois party, brought them here. Their Knesset membership exposed them to advantages, side benefits, power and flattery, and they wish to keep their position as much as possible. These are familiar, even legitimate, considerations, even if they reek of the same odor Shinui lashed out at in other parties, and was formed to fight against. Shinui's MKs prove that people are basically alike.

Ironically, the party is following in Shas's exact footsteps. How is the obedience of Livni, Leibowitz and their colleagues any different than Eli Yishai, Shlomo Benizri and their colleagues' custom of accepting without dispute the authority of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef? How is the argument of Shinui's leader - the need to preserve faction unity - any different from the instructions of Shas's spiritual leader? In what way is Leibowitz and Livni's need to win Lapid's legitimization for their opinions any different from the custom of Shas MKs to ask for the Council of Torah Sages' approval for their positions? One may also wonder whether Lapid's ideological zealotry is any different from Rabbi Yosef's.

The intolerance toward a different view, the cloistering round the faction flag and saluting to the commander's orders that Shinui's faction demonstrated in reaction to the Beilin-Abed Rabbo initiative are but one display of the Shas syndrome that has stuck to Shinui. Three months ago, another ultra-Orthodox code that makes Shinui tick was demonstrated. On July 9, Lapid called a press conference to present his great achievement. He had managed to squeeze out of the finance minister, in a secret understanding, NIS 123 million for the sector he pretends to represent. Lapid proudly outlined the distribution of these allocations: NIS 45 million for cultural needs, NIS 55 million for reducing students' tuition fees and NIS 23 million for research and development.

Lapid's message at that meeting, like his announcement last week, reflects a narrow, parochial political approach, belying Shinui's promise to bring a different kind of politics to public life. Shinui made its surprising electoral achievement due to the image it created for itself of a party seeking to cure politics of its ills, of an open, liberal party that sees the general public's good and rejects the customary sectorial conduct.

Instead of a varied, dappled faction, with ideological fomentation and an open exchange of ideas, Shinui is becoming more and more like a Hasidic court, subject to the absolute authority of its rebbe.