Tommy Lapid, who has made a second career hammering the ultra-Orthodox, says he didn't go into Israeli politics in order to become a government minister. But the outspoken, 71-year-old veteran journalist is suddenly warming to the prospect.
With elections less than one week away, his militantly secularist Shinui looks set to be the third largest party in the Knesset, more than doubling the six seats it won at the first time of asking in 1999. With the economy shrinking and army service expanding, Shinui (Hebrew for change) has become a conduit for the pent-up anger of the Ashkenazi middle class, sickened by sleaze and resenting the religious parties' exploitation of their political leverage.
And secular Israelis are starting to savor the possibility -- no more than that yet -- of a ruling coalition without religious parties.
Interviewed in his Knesset office, the squat, pugnacious Lapid stressed that he would join no other. He would not join a rightist government and he would not join a leftist government.
"I will only strive for a national government which includes Likud and Labor, and I will be in the middle between the two," he said. "I will not sit with the Charedi parties. I have my program, which could not be included in the program of a government that includes Charedim."
What is Lapid's program?
"I want to abolish the law which exempts Charedim from military service," he said. "I want to introduce civil marriage. I want to introduce public transport on the Sabbath. I want to repeal the law that pays a bigger social security allowance to the fifth child than the other four put together. That was promoted by the religious because they are the ones who have five and more children. Every child from the first to the last should get the same.
"Then I want to close the Ministry of Religious Affairs," he added. "There is no need for that ministry, which gets 1.5 billion shekels [about $300 million] a year and nobody knows where the money goes."
Orthodox leaders have accused Lapid of sowing hatred, even of being an anti-Semite. Where does he stand on the Jewish religion?
"I am one of the most active fighters for the full right of Reform and Conservative rabbis in this country. The Orthodox have expropriated Judaism in Israel, which is totally unacceptable to me. One of my aims is to save Judaism from the hands of the Orthodox.
"I want young people to understand that Judaism is a great humanistic tradition, which we should respect as a fundamental of our existence here. I don't want them to despise it because it became a means of imposing your will on the majority of the country and exploiting it for material purposes in the most blatant way.
"I have no quarrel with the Orthodox community, as long as they serve in the army, work and pay taxes," he said. "My quarrel is with the ultra-Orthodox, who don't serve in the army, with the 80 percent of them who don't work, don't pay taxes and live off the secular middle-class taxpayer."
Lapid was born into a prosperous Jewish family in the Serbian city of Novi Sad. His father, a lawyer and newspaper editor, was killed in the Holocaust, along with 11 other family members. He and his mother survived after fleeing to Budapest, where Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg sheltered them.
"We were a very Jewish family, but we were very unreligious. Religion for us, like most assimilated families in Central Europe, meant having a seder night. We went on the High Holidays to the synagogue."
And now in Tel Aviv?
"We don't light Friday night candles. We don't do anything except we keep seder and we light candles on Chanukah. I don't fast on Yom Kippur, but like practically all Israelis, I don't travel on Yom Kippur. My claim is that Yom Kippur is a proof that if religion hadn't been imposed on Israelis, they would be prepared to be much more observant than they are. The fact that people don't travel on Yom Kippur is not written in the law. It's something people do naturally."
Shinui has been criticized for being an ethnic Ashkenazi party and a one-issue party. Lapid pleads guilty to the first, but disputes the second.
"It does worry me that most of our voters and all but one of our Knesset candidates are Ashkenazim. I'm very hopeful that in the future we'll have more Sephardi Jews in our ranks. I'd like a more balanced list."
Now that Shinui is moving into the big time, it has to take a stand on the war and peace issues that are at the heart of the national agenda. Lapid, an instinctive rightist, has shifted to the left. But on his own terms.
"Demography is more important than geography," he argued. "The danger that we will be overwhelmed by millions of Palestinians is much greater than the danger of withdrawal from the majority of the territories.
Labor leader Amram Mitzna is committed to pulling back unilaterally if he can't reach an agreement with the Palestinians within a year. Would Lapid do likewise? The answer is an emphatic "no."
"We should not withdraw from any territory as long as terror lasts, because this will be understood by the Palestinians as a proof that terror works."
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