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 Tuesday, 28 January, 2003, 23:18 GMT
Secular Shinui holds key to coalition
Shinui supporters celebrate
Shinui supporters were jubilant at the predictions
Israel's Shinui party, a secular, centrist grouping, has emerged as perhaps the single biggest winner in Tuesday's general election.

From just six seats in the outgoing Knesset, or parliament, the party now has 15.

It will be difficult for Ariel Sharon - who looks certain to remain as prime minister - to form a stable coalition government without them.

But the aggressively secular party has vowed not to join a coalition that also includes religious parties - and it looks unlikely that a government could be built without them, either.

Tommy Lapid, head of the secular Shinui party
I think Israel should be a modern, Western civilisation and not a medieval ghetto

Tommy Lapid,
Shinui leader
In a speech shortly after exit poll results were announced on Tuesday night, party leader Yosef "Tommy" Lapid called on Mr Sharon to form a secular government of Likud, Shinui and the centre-left Labour party.

Minutes later, Labour party leader Amram Mitzna said he would not join such a government and urged Mr Lapid to refuse to do so as well.

The apparently inflexible positions of Mr Lapid and Mr Mitzna may make it very difficult for Mr Sharon to build a coalition despite his apparently sweeping victory at the polls.

Party aims

Mr Lapid, the man of the hour, is 71, a Holocaust survivor and former talk-show host.

His party's key policies centre on:

  • Reducing the influence of the Jewish religious right in Israeli society;
  • Cutting welfare payments to ultra-Orthodox Jewish families;
  • Removing the exemption that means religious young men do not have to join the army while their secular countrymen are drafted and obliged to serve in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Mr Lapid is characteristically direct about his attitude towards the Orthodox community.

"I don't mind them carrying on their religion but I do mind when they try to impose their views on the secular majority in this country," he says. "I think Israel should be a modern, Western civilisation and not a medieval ghetto."

Ultra-orthodox Jews see themselves as the custodians of the Jewish faith
Shinui wants to reduce the influence of the religious right in Israeli politics
Shinui's policies have set the alarm bells ringing among Israel's religious communities.

People who support religious parties such as Shas and the National Religious Party see themselves as custodians of the Jewish faith.

Jonathan Rosenblum, who writes from an ultra-Orthodox perspective, says his people now regard Mr Lapid as a serious and growing danger to their way of life and to the future of their faith.

'Stereotypes'

Mr Rosenblum accuses Mr Lapid of encouraging secular Jews to hate their religious countrymen.

"He shamelessly plays on the same type of stereotypes which appear in Nazi and other anti-Semitic press. They're found on neo-Nazi websites today and the same thing is being used by Shinui," Mr Rosenblum says.

Mr Lapid concentrated his campaigning in Israel's secular heartland. He was seen chatting to young Israelis in Tel Aviv clubs and bars, and pressing the flesh and putting out the message in coffee shops and shopping centres.

One woman told the BBC she was voting for Shinui in the hope of change - which is what the party's name means.

Many Israelis are very disappointed with both the two main parties - people are looking for a third way and as a result Shinui has been able to pick up many votes

Leslie Susser,
political analyst
"The religious parties are eating up all our money and we don't want it. They should work, just the same as we have to do instead of just taking our money and having a good time," she said.

Its policies are particularly attractive to young, affluent, secular Israelis. But Leslie Susser, political analyst with the Jerusalem Report, says Shinui's rise in popularity is really down to dissatisfaction with the mainstream parties.

"Many Israelis are very disappointed with both the two main parties, Likud and Labour - Likud because it has been unable to come to grips with the intifada and doesn't offer any kind of peace on the horizon; Labour because it went too far in the peace process and it blew up in their faces.

"People are looking for a third way, an alternative, and as a result Shinui has been able to pick up many votes," he says.

Palestinian talks

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat
Mr Lapid rules out talking to Mr Arafat
Mr Lapid says he takes a pragmatic approach to key issue of dealing with the Palestinians. He says there should be negotiations, but not with Yasser Arafat. And he believes there can be peace and a bright future for a forward-looking, secular Israel.

"The talent, the ambition, the ability of the Jewish people will be concentrated here and will bring tremendous results, provided we have peace," Mr Lapid says.

"We will have a viable Palestinian state at our border which will be very interested in having good relations with Israel because it will be very helpful for their development."

Mr Lapid says he wants Israel to be a Jewish state with freedom of religion and freedom from religion. He says he wants to unify right and left in a coalition government.

But his election campaign has done more to remind Israelis not what unites them, but what divides them.


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21 Jan 03 | Middle East
09 Jan 03 | Middle East
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