Even after Shinui became the third-largest party in Israel in last January's Knesset elections, shrewd political observers tended to dismiss its electoral success as a flash in the pan.
Not anymore. After months of being derided as a passing fad with little substance, Shinui, whose name means "change," now really does seem to be making a difference.
The leader of the centrist, staunchly secular party, Justice Minister Yosef "Tommy" Lapid, is proving to be an astute politician with major input in the process of reconciliation underway between Israel and the Palestinians.
Lapid's No. 2, Interior Minister Avraham Poraz, is forcing Israelis to think long and hard on fundamental issues of state and religion.
And now Shinui is gearing up to contest municipal elections across the country this fall, hoping to widen its grass-roots base and show that it's not the elitist, yuppie, one-time phenomenon its critics claimed.
One small incident this week signaled Shinui's arrival as a major force in Israeli politics: Lapid's single-handed reversal of a government vote against the release of Palestinian prisoners.
Palestinian terrorist groups say that an Israeli refusal to release all Palestinian prisoners -- even though it's not part of any peace plan -- will void the groups' recent agreement to temporarily halt attacks against Israel.
On Sunday, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon presented a list of criteria for prisoner release for his Cabinet's approval. The results -- 10-10, with two abstentions -- meant that the proposal had failed. Sharon did nothing to try to change the situation, muttering only that he was tired of the games his own Likud Party ministers were playing with him. Nor did any of the recalcitrant ministers move to break the deadlock.
Lapid, however, was quick to recognize the vote's potential consequences.
"If the proposal is voted down, it will ruin Israel's name in the world, and put an end to the peace process," he declared.
Lapid pressured one of the abstainers, Shinui's own Eliezer Sandberg, the science minister, to change his vote. He also added a rider to the proposal, to the effect that the prisoner release would depend on the Palestinians' compliance with their commitments under the "road map" peace plan. That enabled the other abstainer, Absorption Minister Tzipi Livni of Likud, and one of the nay-sayers, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Likud, to join the supporters.
On a second vote, the proposal passed, 13-9.
Israeli media were unanimous in hailing Lapid as the man whose judgment and political skills had saved Israel from a step that could have torpedoed the nascent peace process. Among the congratulatory phone calls the Shinui leader received that night was one from Sharon, himself.
The incident confirmed what has become increasingly evident over the past few weeks: Lapid is a key player in the new peace moves and one of Sharon's staunchest allies in the government and Knesset.
Sharon made sure to include Lapid in the so-called "Aqaba team" -- four senior ministers who joined Sharon in a June 4 summit in Jordan with President Bush and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas. He then took part in an early July meeting with Abbas and several PA government ministers at Sharon's Jerusalem office. Lapid also is a member of several committees for policy and negotiations with the Palestinians, including the key committee on prisoners' release.
Lapid is also taking initiatives to help create a better climate for peacemaking. On Monday, the justice minister met his Palestinian Authority counterpart, Abd al-Karim Salah, and the PA minister for prisoner affairs, Hisham abd al-Rizik. At that meeting, Lapid invited Abbas and his security chief, Mohammed Dahlan, to visit the Shinui faction in the Knesset.
Right-wing Cabinet ministers accuse Lapid of going too far, too fast with the Palestinians.
Tourism Minister Benny Elon of the far-right National Union bloc told Lapid on Israeli television recently that the day would come when he would "feel ashamed" of the photographs of him hugging Palestinian leaders.
Be that as it may, Lapid and Shinui are exerting a moderating influence on Sharon's right-wing government. This is doubly significant, because without Shinui, Sharon probably would not have been able to carry out his peace policy. In addition, the fact that it is Sharon, with his hawkish reputation, making the peace moves means that most of the country -- left, center and some of the right -- is behind him.
Had it been the Labor Party leading the peace moves, for example, most of the right and some of the center probably would have been vehemently opposed.
Labor leaders even argue that had they been in the coalition, Sharon simply would have blamed them for ongoing violence and would have done nothing to achieve a cease-fire or revive a peace process. But he can't do such things with Lapid, because Shinui does not have the aura of a great national party like Labor, and so can't be blamed in the same way for government inertia.
Shinui also seems likely to leave a mark on civil issues, such as the criteria for Israeli citizenship. In May, Poraz announced a revolutionary approach: Non-Jews living in Israel who have made a "special contribution" to Israeli society can become citizens, whereas people who convert to Judaism in Israel -- even under Orthodox auspices -- would no longer automatically be eligible for citizenship.
The proposed changes would not affect Jews or those who converted to Judaism abroad, who still would be eligible for citizenship under the Law of Return if they moved to Israel.
However, under pressure from the Orthodox establishment, Sharon insisted that Orthodox converts be automatically eligible for citizenship. Poraz then changed his tack. Now, he says, he will back the right of all those who convert in Israel -- whether Orthodox, Conservative or Reform -- to automatic citizenship.
Both gambits by Poraz -- first denying citizenship to all converts, and then supporting it -- had one common denominator: undermining the Orthodox hegemony over Judaism in Israel and gaining a measure of equality for the Conservative and Reform movements.
Not surprisingly, Orthodox Jews have been highly critical of Poraz's moves.
"What he is doing is irresponsible, violates government guidelines and undermines Israel's Jewish and democratic character," asserted Housing Minister Effie Eitam, the leader of the National Religious Party.
Poraz is "behaving like an elephant in a china shop," Eitam said.
Whether Shinui finally secures its position as a major force in national politics could depend on its performance in October's local elections. To shed its city slicker image, Shinui is deliberately targeting the periphery. It intends to put up candidates for mayor in 18 outlying towns and to run for the municipal councils in around 60.
As in the national elections, much of Shinui's energy will be spent fighting the fervently Orthodox Shas Party.
The question is whether Shinui can go beyond simply being an antithesis to Shas and establish itself as a major secular-liberal, peace-backing party. Early signs are that it can.
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