Since the start of Israel's election campaign last October, the flamboyant leader of the secular-rights Shinui Party had been promising a secular revolution in Israel.
This week Yosef "Tommy" Lapid seemed to have a golden opportunity to fulfill his promises when Shinui -- which became Israel's third largest party after the Jan. 28 elections -- agreed to join Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's new Likud-led government.
But the initial signs for a radical shift in secular-religious relations were not auspicious: Shinui, which has 15 Knesset seats, backed off much of its agenda when it compromised with the National Religious Party (NRP) on the guidelines of the prospective government. Moreover, political analysts are questioning just how much a government based on Likud, Shinui, the NRP and the hawkish National Union bloc -- but without the Labor Party -- will be able to move toward peace with the Palestinians.
The National Union, which is staunchly opposed to the Palestinian state Sharon says he supports under certain conditions, tentatively agreed Tuesday to join the government. The inclusion of the seven-member bloc would give Sharon a 68-seat coalition and a bit of breathing room in the 120-member Knesset. Sharon was expected to present his government to the Knesset on Thursday.
The form of that government took some shape Wednesday, when Sharon offered the Foreign Ministry in the new Israeli government to Finance Minister Silvan Shalom, ousting Benjamin Netanyahu from his current position. Earlier Wednesday, Sharon had offered the Finance Ministry to Netanyahu, who turned it down. But following consultations with close advisers, and a proposal from Sharon that sweetened the deal, Netanyahu was still considering the finance portfolio late Wednesday.
According to Israel Radio, in addition to the Cabinet appointment, Netanyahu would be a member of the Security Cabinet. He also wants to serve as acting prime minister in Sharon's absence.
Before Shinui and the NRP signed initial coalition agreements with the Likud on Monday, they worked out a bilateral deal on secular-religious affairs that was mediated by Ehud Olmert, the outgoing mayor of Jerusalem.
First they agreed to annul the "Tal Law," which allows for blanket exemptions from military service for yeshiva students and enables fervently Orthodox men to join the Israeli work force without having to serve first in the army. On the face of it, canceling the Tal Law seems like a major step forward in the campaign for equality between secular and fervently Orthodox Israelis. But the Shinui-NRP agreement gives no indication of what will replace the Tal Law, stipulating only that a committee will propose new legislation within a year.
It is therefore not at all clear that Shinui made any gains at all on one of its main election promises: equal army or national service for all. Nor did Shinui achieve dramatic breakthroughs on two other key election promises: civil marriage and public transport on the Sabbath. The Shinui-NRP deal does provide a civil marriage option for an estimated 250,000 people barred from marrying by the Chief Rabbinate -- for example, when one of the partners is not halachically Jewish or when a descendant of a priestly caste seeks to marry a divorcee.
But the key principle -- offering a civil marriage option for all Israelis -- is not part of the deal. Nor is there any advance on public transport on the Sabbath: Where such services exist, they will continue; where they don't, nothing will be done to introduce them.
Perhaps most importantly, the Shinui-NRP deal leaves the Orthodox monopoly on Jewish religious affairs in Israel intact. There is no recognition of the Conservative or Reform streams nor any upgrading of their secondary status in Israel. Indeed, except on civil marriage and Sabbath transport, Shinui agrees to back the status quo on religious affairs.
So binding is this commitment that even on civil marriage, Shinui's Knesset members are no longer free to back bills presented by individual members without the backing of their parties; the most they can do is abstain if such proposals come to a vote. Acknowledging that Shinui legislators no longer could support a private member's bill on civil marriage that they had proposed jointly with a Labor legislator, Shinui's Yehudit Naot declared Monday, "There are things you just can't do when you're in government."
A few days before he signed the coalition deal, Lapid insisted that "whether we end up in the government or not, I see in our agreement with the NRP a new chapter in the relations between secular and moderate religious people in Israel."
However, few political analysts would agree.
"Where's the change?" the left-leaning secular daily Ha'aretz asked in a scathing editorial Monday, playing on the Hebrew meaning of Shinui's name.
The Shinui-NRP deal "raises concern that in their eagerness to join the government, Shinui's leaders have given up some of the most significant of their principles: freedom of religion and freedom from religion," Ha'aretz argued.
The paper also pointed out that Shinui is not pushing for the enactment of more basic laws enshrining individual and social rights or the completion of a full-fledged constitution.
"If Shinui turns into another ruling party with no agenda," the paper warned, "its fate will be the same as the centrist parties that preceded it" -- all of which quickly disintegrated.
Lapid blames Labor for staying outside the coalition, missing the chance to establish an all-secular government that would have been able to make far more radical changes to the status quo.
Labor's secretary-general, Ophir Pines-Paz, retorts that Shinui torpedoed any chance for a secular government by rushing to cut a deal with the NRP -- the patron of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip -- that made Labor's participation in the government nearly impossible.
The presence of the NRP and National Union in the coalition raises a second question: Will the new government, with its right-wing bias, be able to move toward peace with the Palestinians?
NRP leaders insist they will not accept Palestinian statehood in any shape or form, even though that is the declared aim of the "road map" toward peace being prepared by the diplomatic "Quartet" of the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia. Sharon has publicly accepted the gist of the road map, though Israel is suggesting certain changes that will make the Palestinians' responsibilities more explicit.
To appease the NRP, Sharon promised that government guidelines would include not a commitment to a Palestinian state but a reference to a speech Sharon delivered last December, when he outlined his vision of phased, performance-based progress to Palestinian statehood.
"Only once a specific phase has been implemented," Sharon said then, "will progress to the next phase be possible."
But what happens if there is genuine progress? Would the NRP stay in the coalition or pull out, forcing Sharon to form a new government, possibly with Labor?
The same uncertainty surrounds the durability of Sharon's pact with National Union, which is considered far more hawkish than the NRP. National Union leader Avigdor Lieberman had refused to accept any mention of a Palestinian state in the government guidelines. But he agreed with Likud negotiators Tuesday that the issue of Palestinian statehood would be brought before the Cabinet "if and when it becomes relevant."
In his coalition talks with Labor, Sharon said he was convinced that after an anticipated U.S.-led war against Iraq the international community would turn its attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When that happened, he told Labor leaders, he would be ready to make far-reaching compromises. That statement kept Labor interested, but the talks broke down when Sharon refused to commit himself in writing.
The big question pundits are asking is whether the phased style Sharon favors in peacemaking applies to his coalition building as well. First, he strikes deals with Shinui, NRP and National Union, dealing mainly with economic and social issues; then, pundits say, when Sharon wants to move on the Palestinian track, Labor will again be invited to join the government on the basis of an agreed peace program.
Then again, this narrow coalition, with all its limitations, could be all Sharon really wants. Even with Labor consigned to the opposition, Sharon knows it would support any peace efforts he chooses to make -- just the way Labor supported former Prime Minister Menachem Begin's peacemaking with Egypt from the opposition.
JTA's Naomi Segal contributed to this report. Â
Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report.